Valedictory Address - Susan Taylor

Spring Convocation 2007

Valedictory Address
Susan Taylor, BA (Hons.)
June 3, 2007 3:00 p.m.
83rd University of Winnipeg Convocation

Mr. Chancellor, Mr. President, distinguished guests, fellow graduates, ladies, and gentlemen, Good afternoon. It's an honour to be speaking to you today… and it's great to see that most of you are still awake.

I'd like to begin by thanking everyone for coming- I believe I speak for my fellow graduates as well as myself when I say that it means a great deal to be supported by one's family, friends, and university in this way.

However, on the whole, I feel unable to speak for the past experiences of other graduates, and rather than speculating about the future, I would prefer to take this opportunity to speak about what I believe makes the university experience challenging and rewarding at the present moment.

I would like to speak about the challenges of university education because they give context to the accomplishments of my fellow graduates, who have managed to succeed in spite of a number of difficulties. While many of the factors that make an education hard to attain (such as low socioeconomic status, going to school while working or raising a family, and coping with the challenges of life as an exchange student or immigrant) are external, I would like instead to speak about the difficulties that stem from the deeper structures of the university system itself, as these difficulties are rarely addressed.

One of the most stressful aspects of my education has been the fact that competition between students is not only implicitly valued, but also explicitly encouraged in the university. I wouldn't be speaking to you today if I hadn't recognized this and willingly played along, but I have begun to realize how difficult it is to form a true learning community when students are unwilling to share their learning with others out of a desire to protect or improve their position in the hierarchal system of grading that is the dominant mode of evaluation in the university.

Another difficulty that arises from our focus on individual success within this hierarchy is that students learn to value grades more than knowledge. I would suspect that the majority of students who graduated today have left course texts unread in order to make assignment deadlines (I certainly have), and this is deeply problematic.

However, despite my concerns with the university system in general, I have found much about the university of Winnipeg in particular that is inspiring… and I would like to outline what it is that has made me happy to continue my studies here despite the previously mentioned frustrations.

First, our university has an excellent faculty who, in spite of huge (and hugely stressful) workloads refuse to sacrifice their students and the quality of their teaching to the pressure to "publish or perish". My professors have been truly inspirational, consistently engaging and encouraging their students, dreaming up unique assignments that reflect the development of a students thoughts and skills rather than their ability to paraphrase, emphasizing the connection between the university and the community, and imparting more elusive qualities than the ability to write a thesis statement, qualities such as critical thought, caring, and awareness. I am deeply grateful for their work and I would like to congratulate them as well as the students graduating here today.

My fellow graduates are another reason that I have enjoyed my time at the U of W so much: our university has a successful learning community primarily because these students have steadfastly refused to conform to a corporate, hierarchal model of social relations, and have refused to value grades over people. These are students who have worked tirelessly to become educated for reasons additional to getting a career, students who have used their education to think about their lives and their society, and to act for personal and social change. These students are the reason we are here today, and they are also the force that motivates the academy to change, to value the individual, the community, and the complex intersections between the self and the other that form the actions we take in the world.

I considered closing with a discussion of the challenges our world faces and what to do about them, but I believe that the university is successful at teaching us how to think critically about these problems. What the university does not always teach is how to act on such problems in connection with others, and how to take concrete steps to create change as a community. It is the responsibility of our graduating class to figure out how to do this, and I strongly believe that this is a challenge we can meet. Congratulations, everyone!