It’s certainly different this year. The location and organisation is different. But the underlying essentials are the same: our graduation ceremonies, conducted in the shadow of the pandemic, are both different and the same.
The University wasn’t able to hold graduation ceremonies in 2020, which means that this year’s events, which conclude this week, allow graduands from both 2020 and 2021 to graduate. In a university the size of Sheffield Hallam that means a quite enormous management and logistical challenge. Up to 16,000 students are eligible to graduate, and in practice over 12,000 will have joined us for one of the fifty-three ceremonies. As one of our VIP guests said to me after one ceremony – it is a staggering demand on the teams who make it possible. It is, and I am enormously impressed by how they have risen to it. This year, with two cohorts of graduands to celebrate, it’s the equivalent of putting on a big show in a large theatre four times a day over three weeks. I’m always struck by both the way in which, with admirable surface calmness, the teams manage the big numbers but at the same time are on top of every detail, paying attention to every individual need. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Of course, all the organisation and planning is hidden from the most important people – our students and their families. For them, each graduation ceremony is not one of fifty-three, but is ‘the’ ceremony. It needs to be fresh and personal, reflecting their contribution and effort. For a significant number of our students, who are the first in family to attend university, this is the one occasion on which their families see the university on display. And the ceremonies are well done for our students and their families. This is an event which needs and gets a sense of occasion. As a university, we may need to think about graduation as an overall project, but each graduand needs to experience it as a personal moment. I think I have lost count of the number of graduation ceremonies I’ve attended or presided at over the years, but the fact is that each one still feels important. At root, graduation ceremonies are not about the stage or the hall, the formality and the gowns: they are about personal stories.
This year, of course, our ceremonies have moved to Pond’s Forge, which was able to accommodate our graduation over three weeks. The sports and conference centre has been transformed, and if there is a slightly different acoustic and a slightly different layout, it’s still the case that the setting feels both grand and appropriate. The shadow of the pandemic has brought other changes: a fully masked platform party, somewhat shorter ceremonies, and the replacement of hand shaking by doffing. That makes for a slightly different dynamic. It has worked well, although as a presiding officer it has made it slightly more difficult to have a word with some of the graduands as they progress across the stage – something I always enjoyed doing.
Graduation is a rite of passage. All societies have their rites of passage, moments of celebration and acknowledgement as life courses progress. As advanced societies have moved to increasingly mass participation in higher education so graduation has become established as one of the important rites of passage for increasing numbers of young people. It’s right that we should celebrate personal achievement, and right that we should make that celebration shared and public, with families and friends. Graduations have evolved as universities and society has changed. This year’s Hallam graduation has had to change and adapt because of the pandemic, but it’s been clear to me from the platform that those students from 2020 who’ve had to wait a year for their graduation definitely feel it was worth the wait: we all need rites of passage, and we all need our achievements to be acknowledged – even more so after the challenging circumstances in these cohorts of graduands completed their studies
We are approaching the final week of graduation ceremonies. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge what our 2020 and 2021 graduates have achieved – completing their studies in circumstances none of us wanted or anticipated. It’s also an opportunity to thank our events team for a spectacularly successful and enormously demanding achievement in staging the ceremonies, and to thank all those across the university who have contributed to this success. Most of all it’s an opportunity to reflect, as the young people who have become nurses, paramedics, engineers, lawyers, artists, computer scientists, economists, historians, architects – and so on and so on – what this university is for and does so very well.