They've only 'gown' and done it!

ALMOST a year ago exactly - on July 30th 2020, to be precise - I graduated from Queen’s University.

It goes without saying, the day didn’t play out quite as I imagined it would have when I first enrolled...

My parents and my sister clapped as I marched a solitary procession into the Great Hall (the living room) and took my place in the specially designated student seating (a re-purposed kitchen chair).

On the television screen, a stylised red silhouette of the Lanyon Building was accompanied with the text “Live in Six Minutes.”

Resplendent in my ornate graduation robes – or, more accurately, my mum’s floaty black velvet dressing gown draped over my clothes – I waited with bated breath as my last remaining minutes as a student ticked away.

The YouTube live stream began and, after a couple of brief speeches courtesy of professors I somehow never managed to meet once during my three years at the University, the climactic moment was at hand.

A steady ticker tape of alphabetically arranged student’s names crawled slowly along the bottom of the screen like a breaking news reel. There was a strange feeling of detachment as the names of long lockdown-estranged friends floated steadily by, and I couldn’t help but wonder what their own little living room ceremonies looked like.

When my name – which I could recognise anywhere without even needing to sound it out, what with how I was an extremely smart soon-to-be graduate – finally trundled along, my time as a student of Queen’s University finally came to a close.

I limply tossed the mortarboard my sister bought for me skywards in forced celebration. It was a throw so feeble that it failed to even reach the ceiling.

Rising to my feet, I walked over to my mum, shook her hand, and gratefully received the substitute homemade degree parchment she held out to me. Artfully contained within a cardboard kitchen roll tube decorated with red ribbon was a handwritten note of congratulations purportedly from Queen’s University.

Call me Columbo, but the handwriting was so familiar that I have a hunch it wasn’t really from Queen’s.

The real parchment would come in the post a few days later when, much to my annoyance, the postman neglected to shake my hand as he handed me the inconspicuous, bland looking envelope. He didn’t pin a medal to my chest, nor did he bring me the good news that NASA wanted me for an immediate internship. He never called me a clever boy or patted my head. Not even once.

In other words, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, it was all a bit anti-climactic for the class of 2020.

Of course, nothing else could feasibly have been done. Weddings, Christenings, even funerals were out of the question, so it was no real surprise when it was announced that graduation would be a virtual affair. A deadly virus running rampant amongst an as yet unvaccinated public hardly made for the most promising of backdrops against which to hold a mass costumed garden party in the Queen’s quad.

COVID-19 was ruining livelihoods and claiming lives and, in a way, it felt like something of a privilege that the greatest hardship I had to endure as yet during the pandemic was in missing out on wearing a funny cloak and eating some strawberries and cream.

Yet, the unconventional nature of my digital graduation contributed greatly to the feeling that time was moving along in a curiously disjointed manner.

Lockdown had kicked in at about the half-way mark of my final year, just about as I started work on my dissertation, and leaving Belfast that final time before the Prime Minister pulled down the country’s shutters, I had no idea it would be so long before I was back– yet here we were.

One minute I was a student of Queen’s University, the next, apparently, I wasn’t.

With no last hurrah at the end of three years of study, it felt as though the book wasn’t truly closed on my stint at uni – a strange lack of closure no doubt also familiar to the class of this year, for whom graduation was handled in much the same way.

When, last month, I finally made my first return to Belfast since March 2020, it was particularly heartening to see Botanic Avenue, conspicuously empty last time I saw it in the early days of the pandemic, beginning to spring back to form and buzz once again with the bustle of student life.

It was a bittersweet affair to revisit all the old haunts from my misspent uni days, when it was always five o’clock somewhere and student loans were there to be frittered on meal deals and clothes from vintage shops.

Even though I had only really just left, some of the people strolling along the streets looked so fresh faced and young that I felt a faint desire to shake a walking stick at them and tell them how it was back in my day.

The Queen’s University campus itself, though, was strange to behold in its emptiness.

It all felt smaller than it did when I was a first year, back when the avenue felt like it could well have been the very centre of the world. Stepping off the train at Botanic as a fresher, to me, was like stepping into an exciting blur of new friends and new freedoms.

It’s difficult to feel anything but utmost sympathy for the first years of 2020 who left school in the midst of a pandemic and didn’t get to experience what was arguably the most fun part of being a student – exploring the new stomping ground with brand new buddies before the scourge of deadlines and coursework close in.

But, if the class of 2020 thought that the whole university rigmarole was done and dusted for good, they were in for a surprise. Queen’s University recently announced that they intend to hold graduation ceremonies at the Whitla Hall this December, complete with gowns and photographers and all of the trimmings.

The only difference between these ceremonies and those that came before, Queen’s were keen to point out, is that we have all technically already graduated.

And so, at long last, the class of 2020 will be able to take that wistful nostalgic glint out from our eyes and stop all of our moaning about missing out, because we’ll finally be able to walk across the stage in front of our friends and families.

Who’s to say, though, that I won’t still opt for my mum’s velvet dressing gown over the official Queen’s robes when my turn comes to take my walk across the stage?

It really was that comfortable...

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