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Graduation, ceremonies and the end of a journey

I suspect that every Open University student, regardless of all the many memories inherent throughout their degree, share two overwhelming moments: the day the course books first arrive and the graduation ceremony.

For me the day the text books arrived in the post was the moment the course became real. Without the experience of inductions and first walks around campus, meeting lecturers and fellow students that other University students have, the day the course books arrive is the first moment that summons the thought, ‘Am I actually doing this?’ That wonderful moment of excitement and trepidation, for me, was quickly followed (as I flipped through the textbook) with the nervous question of was I really up for it, and would I ever actually have a degree on the other side?

Most University students probably share such trepidations – but I feel it may be particularly true of OU students given the vast array of ages, circumstances and life stories which bring individuals to the OU – leaving the question of whether we will be able to juggle all the life commitments most of us began and ended our degrees with.

I think many of us found it hard to see the day when we would finally reach that other momentous milestone: standing in a gown on a stage, holding the proof of a completed degree in front of friends and family. I was well into my second year of my BSc in Psychology before I even contemplated going to a graduation ceremony (a thought which at first filled me with excitement and then nervous anticipation at the idea of another new experience to undertake, and was quickly put aside again whilst I completed yet another TMA...). For me, the sense of accomplishment when the day finally arrived was all the more profound for remembering that precarious and rocky starting point, and all the many hurdles faced along the way. Perhaps this is why these moments, which mark the effective beginning and end of the degree experience, make such a lasting impression.

Yet many students are faced with the question, ‘Is it really worth going to the ceremony?’ For most, the ceremony comes months after the degree results are in and the certificate sent. Given the nature of the OU and the huge disparity in location amongst its students, the ceremony often represents a long journey and time spent getting to and from – and with all our day to day commitments (and future prospects of careers and further study often underway) the question of the importance of making the trip for a day of cap-and-gowning leaves some students uncertain.

These were all questions I posed myself not long ago, as my degree results came in in December 2013. I spent most of my Open University career living in the highlands of Scotland where even tutorials were often at far-reaching locations and became – like many other OU students – profoundly helped by the online structure of the course. More specifically, I found the forums and interactions available with other students invaluable. I had the very good fortune to share much of my degree courses in common with the same group of students (the uniquely self-dubbed ‘Kumquats’) who were a constant source of support, help and comic relief through the sometimes treacherous waters of Child Development, Biological Psychology, and perhaps most of all – the gruelling DD303 and Cognitive Psychology. By the time my fourth and final year approached, this group (and many others who had come and gone along the way) were as close as friends who lived nearby, and as loved and respected as if we had been sitting next to each other in lectures for four years, rather than scattered all across the country, having rarely (if ever) met in person.

For me, this is what going to the ceremony became about. Finishing my degree was a very important moment in my life, and one that I felt I owed myself a day of true celebration for. My graduation day was a moment for me to feel that I had genuinely done the work and accomplished all that I had striven for; sit back and revel in the accumulated experience of those very difficult and profoundly rewarding years. But even more than that – I wanted to share the day with the people who had truly helped make that possible.

This, I believe, is something that is important for most OU students, regardless of who those people are who helped them along the way. For myself, I had some very impressive and helpful tutors in my time with the OU, but it was the individual students who I could reach out to at one, two, even three in the morning sometimes when I was certain I had misunderstood the question after having just submitted a final TMA, or when a certain topic just would not unwind itself in my mind and I needed another’s thoughts on the subject. Even sometimes getting on and explaining a topic to others would suddenly make it all make sense to me, and for this I felt the deep and profound need to share a real moment with those students who had become such a valued and real part of my life.

Luckily a move to the south of England in the final months of my degree made the decision of where to go for my ceremony a bit easier. The Barbican in London seemed the overwhelming venue of choice for students graduating with me, and so it was that a number of us all booked together for March 29th 2014.

In many ways, the few months which preceded the ceremony led us all in our separate directions, thinking about new jobs, new work experience, applying for postgrad studies - or just getting the chance to finally clean our houses, spend time with family or travel again. It was, in actuality, the first time in four years I’d gone more than a month or so without speaking with this group every day, and as the graduation ceremony approached I relished the chance to catch up with many of these companions with new vigour.

The day was on a sunny weekend in March – what better could be expected from a graduation in London? A two hour drive from Somerset found us on the Tube in our finery and heading towards the Barbican. If I am completely honest, I had been so concerned with meeting up with other students that I had all but forgotten that I had to get up on stage, and for a brief moment the size of the venue reminded me what a great and distinguished moment this really was. But the atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed and jovial and, after getting my seating assignment and putting the (admittedly) very warm robe on, I found the other students outside and, once again - with their support - it suddenly all became doable and a good laugh to boot.

The day was a profound experience for me in the end. There was a deeply important element of closure – of ‘we really did it’ that resonated throughout the venue as we took our seats in the glorious hall and listened to the orator discuss what we had achieved. As the video played prior to the event beginning, recapping life as an OU student, I think we all felt a real sense of pride and solidarity that we had actually completed this – and we had completed it well. The truth of all the little moments of TMAs and late night studying, first moments in exams and exaltation at results resonated through us all, and our hands tingled with numbed excitement as we made sure we clapped our proud enthusiasm for every student who walked on the stage and received their degree.

Regardless of the degree achieved or the student’s name, for those hours we felt like a family – and we rejoiced for each student who walked on the stage, because every person there knew what it had taken to arrive in that moment.

The day was not without a few tears, either.

Fellow OU graduate Claire Bone, BSc (Hons) remembered “I didn't think I was going to get emotional at the graduation ceremony, but hearing and identifying with some of the experiences that other OU students shared (such as TMA writing through the night) gave me goose bumps as well as making me smile. It was great to hear the names of people I have met or grown to know (through tutorials, residential schools and also Facebook groups) being called out on stage and being able to cheer them on!”

For me, this opportunity was largely to remind myself that I had really and truly accomplished my degree – and it was worth all the hard work and effort put in, as well as a chance to share that gratitude with the people who helped me get there. Similarly for others it was about sharing the day with family and friends who had supported them at home, who had taken on burdens (or asked endless flashcard questions in preparations for exams), to weekends and holidays together lost to study, and patience and support through many difficult times. The feeling of sharing this proud completion with the family who believed in you was very prominent on the day. One fellow student, Justin Barley, BSc (Hons), said “I found the day to be an amazing experience for me and my family. It was a chance to connect with the closest people to me in celebration of an achievement that I am extremely proud of and I know they are too. The ceremony made me quite emotional as it brought closure to a roller coaster of highs and lows - a journey that involved many other people. The day gave me an opportunity to reflect on the support given to me over the years of study from others - a joyous occasion all round”

In the end, I could not be happier that I had this day to look back and remember all that came before it in a fantastic moment of laughter and tears with the people who were most important in helping me get there. Whatever questions students may have about whether going to the ceremony is actually worth it, I would say this to them: as OU students, we often feel we are an island – with only a lifeline out into the world of psychology and learning and all that we want to achieve in our future. But it is rarely on our own that we actually achieve these aspirations. It is with the help of others - be it family and friends, fellow students, course tutors or OU faculty - that we find our way and complete our goals. The degree ceremony, for me, was a culmination of all of that – and to realise the truth that none of us were an island, but together made up the proud and tenacious Open University Class of 2013.

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