Opinion: Why we have graduation ceremonies
- Gail MacKay | July 27, 2017
What’s the value of a graduation ceremony? One answer is that it follows a tradition of family and community getting together to recognize a person’s transition to a new stage of life, a new way of relating in the world. It’s a ceremony to witness the end of something and the beginning of something else. It’s a way to acknowledge a person’s persistence in working to reach their goal.
This year I attended graduation ceremonies both as a graduate and a teacher. Seeing the gathering from both sides made me think about the question, “Why?”
Recently a friend said to me, “If you know why you are doing something it helps you get through the tough times. Answer the question ‘Why?’ and you’ll find your way through.”
I thought about people who have inspired me to persist and finish my degree. They are people who know why they are doing the work they have taken on.
The first example is a man who managed to study Cree history and culture at a university before there was a Native Studies Department or Program there. He graduated then moved 3000 kilometers to a university that had a Master’s program in Native Studies even though he had to wait a year until they accepted the next group of students. He was creative and persistent and focused on his purpose.
The second example is made up of a number of champions of Indigenous language learning and teaching. They aren’t discouraged by the many ways that Indigenous languages are overwhelmed by English or the many ways that the problem of language shift seems so much bigger than one person can solve. Some have raised awareness that Michif is a language, and they work to teach in community, elementary schools, and university classes.
Others saw that there was no local training for Indigenous language teachers so they developed an Indigenous Language Teacher’s Certificate Program in the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S). Some language champions recognized that language revitalization is a project that is bigger than just classroom teaching and so they have brought a Master’s Program in Indigenous Language Revitalization (MILR) to the U of S and are working to make it a permanent program. Some language champions work full time as teachers while studying full time as students in the master’s program. Some champions have innovated new ways of teaching with language immersion camps, language immersion houses, and language immersion cafés. These champions aren’t discouraged by what is not, instead they work to make their vision come into being. They know why they are working so hard.
The third example is the many university students I have known in these past few years of working in the College of Education at the U of S. They have persisted through tough times that would have made many other people quit. Tough times are balancing school, community, and family commitments when coping with the loss of a beloved relative to accident or suicide; or the physical demands of giving birth at the start of the school term and bringing the baby along to field placement in an elementary classroom, or needing to come up with creative ways to make do with less, and make more with little money. Tough times are coping with children’s accidents, injuries, illness, diagnosis, exceptional needs, and their schedules that don’t coincide with university class times or bus schedules. Tough times are refusing to surrender to pain; physical, emotional, or psychological, and working step by step to complete a project, a course, a program.
How many times I’ve heard someone say, “I know they would want me to finish.” This past week at the graduation pow wow I met a former student who reminded me of this. She is grieving 5 recent deaths in her family. We stopped and talked and she took a break from the interviews she was doing to complete a course assignment. She opened her calendar and showed me the memorials from the funerals. How powerfully real I felt her determination and will to carry on.
The graduation ceremony celebrates a transformation from student to graduate. It honours the graduates’ persistence. It also honours why we are persistent. At the heart of persistence is hope and responsibility to the continued health of language, knowledge and culture. What gives us hope and fills us with a sense of responsibility are our family and community, our ancestors now deceased, and future generations waiting to be born. For that reason, graduation ceremonies honour graduates’ reasons why they persist.