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Closing graduation address

Tuesday 30 November 2010

The following Graduation Address was delivered by Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson on November 30 2010.


Chancellor, Rector, Honoured Guest, Ladies and Gentlemen.

First and foremost, I would like to offer my warmest congratulations to those of you who are graduating today, and to my colleagues who have been inducted as professors. To those who are graduating, I would like to ask you to spare a moment for your parents. I know that this is a big day for you, but today is an important day in their lives too. Share it with them. Many may not have been to St Andrews before, but without their help you might never have gotten here. Take a moment as you say good bye to introduce them to your friends and to your favourite places in St Andrews. They are brimming with pride at your achievement. Please show them that you appreciate their help.

St Andrews, like Ithaka  before it, is a destination. Almost all of you have had to travel to study here. It’s in the nature of the place. The town, as many of you probably know, obtained its name from the relics of St Andrew, which were brought here by St Regulus in the 4th century after a long and arduous journey from Patras.

Few of you, I expect, travelled here by boat, or had to contend with Cyclops and Lotus Eaters like Odysseus, or being shipwrecked off the rocks nearby, like Regulus. But you have travelled a long way. As was clear from the names read out by the deans earlier, you have come from all over to attend St Andrews. The  544 students graduating today come from 49 countries. You come from as far afield as Uzbekistan and Argentina,  Sri Lanka and Ghana,  Canada and China.  Given the size of St Andrews and the distance you have travelled, each of you have, in Frost’s words, taken the road “less travelled” and for each of you, as for him, I trust “ that has made all the difference.”

St Andrew’s Day, Scotland’s national day, is a particularly appropriate day for a graduation. St Andrew himself was a trailblazer. According to the Declaration of Arbroath he was the first to become an Apostle of Jesus, and therefore, decidedly, taking the road less travelled. Scotland’s flag, the Saltire, is designed to represent the cross on which Andrew was crucified. Whether or not one actually believes the legend about the arrival of the relics of St Andrew here, one point is clear: Had this story not come to be an accepted truth, this university would never have been founded. The university emerged from the teaching taking place by the religious orders based around the cathedral. We would not be here today preparing to celebrate our 600 years of scholarship and academic exploration, six centuries in which teachers pass on to students the accumulated wisdom of their generation, were it not believed that we held the relic of St Andrew, the brother of Peter, and the first Apostle. You are now, and always will be, part of this history.

This history has seen the ebb and flow of tides of scholars who have journeyed here, learned and taught here, and then scattered again, enriched by the time they spent among our cobble streets, our draughty buildings, and more recently, our cutting edge laboratories. This historic sense of St Andrews as a beacon of enlightenment and learning has continued to this day, even if we arrive by air and train from all over, rather than by boat from the Low Countries.

Of course, not all important journeys involve long physical distances. One of the most eminent of our graduates, Sir James Black, died earlier this year. He did not have far to travel from his Cowdenbeath home to come to St Andrews, but the world of the poor mining family from which he came, was a very different world than St Andrews University, where he won a scholarship to study medicine at the age of 15. He went on to discover not one but two of the best selling drugs in the world, one for the treatment of heart disease and another for the treatment of ulcers. He was awarded the Nobel Prize and, of more consequence to him, he improved the lives of millions of people.

Our intended honourand today, Sir Stephen Redgrave, knows all about navigating difficult waters and travelling quickly to one’s destination. His drive, ambition, discipline and raw talent led him to win five Olympic gold medals

Whereas Sir Steve’s journeys had to be fast to be successful, yours do not. In fact, perhaps you should take your time, as recommended by Cavafy, in referencing  Homer’s account of the legendary journey of Odysseus, in his famous poem,  Ithaka:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
So you are old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting  Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

The purpose of the education you have received during your time in St Andrews is to equip you for this journey so that you are prepared to take advantage of all that you encounter along the way. Yes, we have dutifully sought to give you skill sets, and employability stars, and graduate attributes, but mostly we hope we have imparted a capacity for critical thinking, for ethical engagement with the world around you, and a desire to leave it better than you found it.

We’ve all heard the frequent bon mots to the effect that “it’s not the journey, it’s the people you meet along the way” and of course that’s true.  Rousseau well understood  in educating Emile that democracy rests  on the human ability to empathize, to be interdependent with others as equals. Without engaging others our lives would be very much poorer and we at St Andrews pride ourselves in the range of nationalities we bring together and that you all represent today. But these phrases can occasionally miss the point. It’s not enough to undertake the journey, we must be sufficiently self-aware to learn from the experience of the journey itself. TS Eliot, a graduate of Harvard University and an Honorary graduate of St Andrews, wrote memorably in the closing of the first of his four quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Graduation is inescapably both an ending and a beginning. Today is dedicated to celebrating your achievements but also to wishing you well for the journey ahead, and to encouraging you to play your part fully, to be ambitious, creative, and generous as you embark on the next phase of your lives.

We hope that you will remember us. We take great pride in the enormous and perhaps unparalleled affection for the university held by our graduates. You don’t have to fall in love with your future partner over a library book, in a lab, or even at a fashion show, to know that this is a unique place, where important relationships take root, and lasting friendships are formed. As you graduate you are joining a global community of alumni united by affection for this great university. We hope you will continue to engage with us, and to support us, as together we forge a future worthy of our past, and ensure that future generations have the benefits you have enjoyed of a St Andrews education.

Just as in days gone by, the reputation of St Andrews as a place of learning was spread by those who had been here, so today, you, our graduates, are our best ambassadors. Go out and tell people about us, encourage them to make their own journey of discovery though interaction with us and all that we do.

You now have an opportunity to realize the aspirations we hope your time here has raised. I will close with words attributed to Mark Twain, words particularly appropriate for our seaside location and destination of voyagers throughout the centuries:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Noe Kains

Principal's Medal winner Noe Kains celebrates in the snow. See photo of the week for further information.