It was a whirlwind week. Despite finishing all coursework and exams, I was balancing the realities of a job hunt with a final week of social events with my MBA colleagues. Interviews and job applications were interleaved with class trips to baseball games and spa resorts. Any hope of “me” time was pretty much dashed.
On Thursday, my mother arrived to attend graduation. She has been traveling the last couple of months, and this was her last stop on the way back to Australia. I got to show her the city I have called home for much of the past two years, visiting the sights, the culture, and the shopping.
The rehearsal itself was mainly confined to working out where we would sit, when we had to get up and speak, and how we would cross the stage. There was a little bit of comedy when we discovered the logistical difficulties of trying to receive a degree and shake the hand of the Dean whilst wearing a sling (my collarbone is still healing).
Then the first bit of unexpected news arrived. On Friday, whilst showing my mother around the amazing Dallas Museum of Art collection, I got an email to say that I had been selected to be a reader at the Cox School of Business graduation ceremony. Unlike for the Meadows ceremony, the role of reader is assigned only to the top students in the program. It turned out that I would be graduating 3rd highest in my cohort, and so had made the cut as the final reader. It was a shock to say the least – I was graduating with one of the most talented cohorts in the history of one of the top business schools in the world, and despite having done respectably in my coursework, I had simply assumed that there were more students ahead of me in the rankings. In fact, I had volunteered to be the reader for the Meadows ceremony for that very reason.
Graduation day had just got a lot bigger.
But there was more news to come. On Friday afternoon the decision was made to change the format of the Meadows ceremony due to bad weather expected on the day. This meant that the ceremony would be split into four smaller ceremonies representing the different artistic disciplines, to be held in small theatres throughout the school as opposed to the original combined event outdoors. The consequence of this was that they now needed someone to sing the Alma Mater for the Fine Arts, Art History, and Arts Management ceremony. And they decided that the former opera singer in the group (i.e. me) would probably be a good choice for that. So I had a day to learn a new piece of music.
Needless to say I did not sleep much the night before.
I was up before 6am on Saturday to get ready, packing together everything that I would need for the day, and getting dressed for the occasion. On the way to the university I stopped in for coffee and donuts, a breakfast of champions, before arriving for the all-school commencement.
Even at 7:30am the crowds were swarming around the Moody Coliseum, the massive indoor stadium at Southern Methodist University. This would be the 100th graduating class of the university, a massive milestone. Demand had been so high for the commencement ceremony that they had to issue tickets to students for their guests, and even then, the stadium was filled to its 7000 seat capacity.
I made my way around to the staging area in the building next door, and met with my fellow students to put on our academic regalia of blue gowns, multi-coloured hoods that hung down our backs, and mortarboards. The Cox rugby team had decided to start a new tradition this year, with graduating players wearing the iconic red socks of the game uniform under the gowns, as a subtle nod to the club. I hope the tradition catches on; even though the socks were warmer to wear, showing the cheeky flash of red as we walked was worth it.
The commencement is a very formal affair, marked primarily by the keynote address. For the 100th commencement, SMU decided to take the unusual step of bringing back a former commencement speaker, though given the occasion it was hardly surprising. There at the dais was 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush, who had given the commencement for the class of 1999 when he was Governor of Texas.
Regardless of your opinions on his tenure as U.S. President (and deep in the heart of Texas, he gets a standing ovation), his commencement address was quite good, blending his folksy self-deprecating humor with inspiring statements on how we should face the challenges that global society presents. And it’s not every day that your graduation ceremony makes national news.
From there my mother and I headed out to a lovely brunch organized for the MA/MBA graduates, where we were able to refuel and enjoy a brief celebratory Mimosa in true Dallas style.
Then it was back to campus for ceremony number two, the Cox School of Business graduation. The three readers led our cohort of MBA graduates out into Moody Coliseum once more; whilst the crowd was not as large as for the morning commencement, it was still in the thousands, boosted by many who could not get tickets to the first ceremony. As readers, we took our place on the front stage in Moody Coliseum, looking back out at the hundreds of students and the audience. I was sat directly behind the Dean of the school, close to the central podium.
This meant that I was actually on camera half the time, lurking in the background of the picture as the various speakers delivered their orations. More than once I was caught staring at the jumbotron, my face on camera and my eyes looking up, which was slightly embarrassing.
With the formal speeches complete, then came the awarding of the degrees, with the students lining up to cross the stage, shake hands with faculty, and receive their diplomas. I sat and listened as my fellow readers progressed through the list, each name bringing cheers from sections of the audience. Then my turn to read came, and I took the dais, receiving name cards from each of the students as they took the stage. Even though I could have named each of them by first and last name (after all, I had studied with them for the past two years), for the ceremony their full names were given, which was a learning experience to say the least. I think I got most of the names right (and for those I didn’t, my sincerest apologies). With the final name read, all that was left was for me to announce my own name to the audience, cross the stage, and receive my MBA. It was electrifying to hear the applause of the crowd and my classmates.
With the change in arrangements due to the weather (which, despite predicted thunderstorms, had remained rain free but oppressively hot and humid, justifying the indoor change), our reduced group of 30-40 students and faculty filed into a small, semicircular auditorium, all of us seated on the central stage.
Even though I had less names to read for this ceremony, it felt even more important this time. The students I would be introducing were my MA/MBA cohort, people who by virtue of our shared passion for the arts, our shared classes, and our shared experiences in the program both in Dallas and Milan, had become my closest friends in the program. It filled me with great pride to announce each and every one of them, the largest MA/MBA cohort in the history of the university (and in our completely unbiased view, the best!).
Again, with the final name of my colleagues read out, all that was left was to announce myself, and cross the small stage to receive my MA. But I could not relax yet.
After the keynote speech (which, with the splitting of ceremonies, was delivered simultaneously by four different speakers, only one of which had actually written the speech), it was time for me to sing the Alma Mater, “Varsity”. In the short time I had had to learn it, I had pored over the score and searched out Youtube videos of it, trying hard to ensure that the lyrics were firmly embedded in my brain when the time came to sing it.
All that was left was the closing remarks, and then we were done. Three ceremonies completed. I headed out for a quiet dinner and celebratory drink with my mother. Then it was home to collapse from exhaustion into bed, a freshly minted member of the MA/MBA club.
To be honest it’s all still sinking in. Even two days later it hasn’t quite registered that graduate school is over. Maybe it’s because I am still unsure what or where the next step is. I just reflexively assume that I will be starting a fresh round of courses soon.
What is true is that I am already starting to miss my colleagues. There is a faint awareness that many of the wonderful people that have been my friends over these past two years are going away, that I won’t be seeing them regularly at classes or social events.
But overwhelmingly, the exhaustion has caught up. Two years with late nights, limited sleep, and regimented schedules has taken its toll. I feel like I could lie down for a week. I think I've earned it...