AT the university of Cambridge, the ritual for transforming graduands into graduates – also known as the congregation ceremony- is engulfed with intriguing ancient traditions, stretching back more than 800 years ago. Founded in 1209 and despite being the home to the world’s modern technologies, the university still safeguard one of the most traditional way of conferring degrees to its students.
Some of the acentric rituals passed through hundreds of years includes 1) the walk along the streets of Cambridge in black gown; 2) the absence of amplification (no microphone and loudspeakers) and handclaps; 3) the ritual of holding the Praelectors four fingers; 4) the ritual of kneeling and clasping before the Vice Chancellor’s (VC) ; and 5) the usage of Latin grace, long after the language was replaced by English as the official language of the regnal style in the 1500s.
26th October 2019 marked the finale of my university time when I was conferred the Doctor of Philosophy in Engineering (Robinson College). This was my second graduation in the same university after completing the MPhil in Conservation Leadership (Girton College) on the 25th October 2014. Looking back at how my graduation day unfolded, I felt blessed to be able to experience the world's most traditional graduation whilst still baffled about the amount of mixed emotions I felt on one single day. I then decided to push a pen and translate the vivid memory in black and white.
Depending on the time of graduation, graduands and guests are usually invited for brunch or lunch at the graduands respective colleges. This pre graduation lunch is free for graduands and their guests. Here, parents, tutors and other academics usually meet for the first time. In my college, pre drinks was served at the balcony and tickets to the Senate House were distributed by the Praelector. Robinson College's Praelector is Dr Jeremy R Thurlow. He was so kind to respond to my enquiry earlier that week about all the meaning of the intriguing and eccentric rituals in Cambridge Graduation.
The ambiance during the pre-graduation lunch was more or less like a formal dinner but of course with a bigger occasion to celebrate. After savouring yet another delightful three course meal, a short rehearsal for the graduation ceremony took place. THE SENATE HOUSE
Like the Oxford University and Durham University in the UK, Cambridge is a collegiate university; comprising of faculties and departments in different academic subjects, and a number of colleges. In Cambridge, there are 31 colleges and all degrees for these colleges are awarded in one majestic mansion sandwiched between King’s College (founded 1414) and Gonville & Caius College (founded 1348) - The Senate House. Just next to The Senate House stands the Church of St. Mary, where Stephen Hawking was commemorated in 2017. The quaint and picturesque building forms part of the Old School Site of the university.
Built in 1722 and completed in 1730, the Senate House’s Portland stone exterior resembles neoclassic, 18th century architecture. Inside, the building is elegantly floored with black and white checkered marble tiles. The Senate House was intentionally built to carter meetings of the Council of the Senate, hence, the name. As one of the must-see landmarks in Cambridge, the Senate House also hosted many other memorable events apart from graduation such as the mathematics ceremony (when lists of degree results are thrown like confetti from the top balcony); the 2010 protest against an increase in tuition fees in England; the famous 1958 Austin Seven’s students prank (when the car was secretly hoisted to the top of the Senate House rooftop.)
On normal days, the gate of the Senate House is closed and members of the public are not permitted inside the building as well as the well maintained lawn. Likewise, the culture of exclusivity is much embraced at the University of Cambridge. On graduation days, the gate is only open to graduation guests and university members while graduands’ results are traditionally exhibited by the window outside the hall. THE WALK IN A GOWN
On the graduation day, we, the graduands of Cambridge University did not usually turn up straight to the Senate House. Rather, with our black gowns and coloured hoods on, we walked together in a procession from our respective colleges led by the college tutors. Although we were used to wear our black gown -also known as subfusc- for occasions like matriculation, formal dinners and exams, today, we had our colour based hoods as the new addition. Everybody looked extra sleek and nobody could hide the happy glow that radiated on their faces. I think, this was our final opportunity to flock together in a group before dispersing across the globe perusing dreams as a contributing member to the society.
In retrospect, all graduands have had their fair share of university toil and on this special day, all study stress magically ebbed away, everyone just throbbed with absolute happiness. The customary tradition of walking through the town to the Senate House never fail to uplift the small town of Cambridge. Crowds of fascinated onlookers and tourists hit jackpot to be able to witness this procession on Cambridge streets.
I used to live in the college and spent close to five years in Cambridge. I had walked the same path hundreds of times before, but this time, the feeling was pleasantly different. Just like on a cloud nine, my feet barely touched the ground and I could hear my heart singing with a flare of contentment dancing through my thoughts. The day I have been working hard for was finally here. Although it was already drizzling when we walked to the Senate House, that did not seem to bother us. ENTERING THE GRAND DOOR
After walking past the famous bridge by the Cambridge River, it was still raining and everyone was armed with umbrella. The 15 min walk from Robinson College to the Senate House, however, seemed shorter that it usually was. We were now lining up in front of the Grand Door, ready to enter the Senate House. Serious mode suddenly kicked in. The moment of truth was just minutes away. We knew for a fact that the second we exit the hall, we were all going to be awarded with the degrees that we had shed blood, sweat and tears for. Admittedly, this was every graduand’s most anticipated moment since day one arriving in Cambridge as a student. As I stood in front of the Grand Door, the joy and pain in academia I endured for years suddenly evoked. The feeling was both rewarding and surreal in a delightful sort of way. Again, I could not hide the joy that beamed in my smile which I wore all day long. SOLEMNITY AND LATIN GRACE
When we stepped feet on the contrasting black and white floor inside the Senate House, the hall was already filled with proud parents, families and friends, sitting on the wooden benches on the left and right. I have been to this hall for the same reason before, but, nothing quite prepared me for the overwhelming sensation as soon as I entered it yet again. It was all calm, quiet and intimate inside. The space was rather small for a celebratory occasion. Therefore, each graduand was allowed to bring only up to three guests. From where I was standing, I could instantly spot my three guests - my mother, my husband and my sister. Except for my father who could not make it this time, they were almost my same guests who came to my graduation four years ago.
In front the hall laid a small dias with a wooden and red-velvety throne, a table and a wooden rostrum; all set up on a couple of somewhat depilated dusty pink and blue, patterned carpets. The VC sat composedly on his throne. In a total solemn, the ceremony commenced. Unlike modern graduation ceremonies, there was no microphone, no hand claps, no graduation song, no videographer inside the hall. The silence was only being broken at times by the echoing voices of the VC, praelector, and footsteps of the graduands. Everyone in the hall were brought back in time, hundreds of years ago.
Before my college mates and I entered the hall, the VC procession already took place and it was led by the Esquire Bedells. After welcoming guests inside the hall, the Senior Proctor proposed special graces before allowing a pause to permit any member of the Regent House present to call a vote, by saying 'Non Placet' ['It does not please]. As expected, this did not happen. Next, the Junior Proctor indicates the tacit approval of the Regent House by saying 'Placet' ['It pleases']. The Senior Proctor then put another grace that went: "Supplicant reverentiis vestris viri mulieresque quorum nomina juxta senaculum in porticu proposuit hodie Registrarius nec delevit Procancellarius ut gradum quisque quem rite petivit assequantur."
"Those men and women whose names the Registrary has today posted in the arcade beside the Senate-House and which the Vice-Chancellor has not deleted beg your reverences that they may proceed to the degree for which each has properly applied."
Since there was no objections, the Junior Proctor says “Placet.” One of the Bedells then led the VC to his throne for the presentation of the graduands. Candidates for Higher Degrees (DD, LLD, MD, LittD, ScD, MusD, BD, VetMD and MChir) were presented first, followed by candidates for the MA by another special grace. THE FOUR FINGERS
My turn to be presented to the VC came sooner than I expected. In the line of fours, my three college’s friends and I were all set and ready. Earlier, we were put alphabetically by surname according to the type of degree we were to receive. Unlike most graduation ceremony, no announcement was made about the subject of the degree or to the level we achieved. For Robinson College, the first four to be presented were - Alex, Joshua, Hazwan and me, three Malaysians and one British. The Praecelctor put forward his for fingers in the air, index, middle, ring and pinky fingers. As previously rehearsed, each one of us held one of the Praecelctor's four fingers before we were being presented to the VC. I was the last in his four so held onto the pinky finger. As what being briefed during the rehearsal, holding the Praecelctor's four fingers symbolises the authority from the Praecelctor that runs through his vein and reaches ours before we touch the VC hands.
The Praelector then says: "Dignissima domina, Domina Procancellaria et tota Academia praesento vobis hunc virum (hanc mulierem) quem (quam) scio tam moribus quam doctrina esse idoneum (idoneam) ad gradum assequendum (name of degree); idque tibi fide mea praesto totique Academiae."
[Most worthy Vice-Chancellor and the whole University, I present to you this (woman and man) whom I know to be (suitable) as much by character as by learning to proceed to the degree of (Doctor of Philosophy) for which I pledge my faith to you and to the whole University.] KNEEL AND CLASP
Zurina Moktar - my name was announced. Fully loaded with pride and a slight hint of stage fright, I walked three steps towards the VC’s throne. The only sound that resonated was the sound of my own footsteps and my heart pounding. Upon reaching the VC’s throne, I slowly kneeled down before him, carefully set my shin on the red-cushioned wooden foot rest, and gently clasped my hands. Remained seated on his throne, the VC put both his hands around mine as a gesture of acceptance and said:
"Auctoritate mihi commissa admitto te ad gradum (name of degree), in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti."
[By the authority committed to me, I admit you to the degree of (Doctor of Philosophy) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit]
For religious reason, I earlier elected to have the Trinitarian words -in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit- omitted from the grace and replaced by just “dei nomanei”. Praelectors usually present candidates for the same degree in groups of up to four at a time. After the first group has been presented for the same degree, abbreviated formulae are often used, which goes : "Hos etiam praesento et de his idem vobis praesto." [These I also present and of them I give you the same pledge.] In turn, the VC may say: "Te etiam admitto ad eundum gradum."[I admit you also to the same degree.]
With the kneeling and clasping ritual done, my degree was conferred. As a new graduate, I then rose, bowed to the VC and exited the Senate House through the Doctor's Door at the right side of the hall. A sense of accomplishment rushed through me as I walked. The memorable ritual went very swiftly and it took only about less than 10 mins from the moment I entered the Grand Door till the moment I exited the building. Everything stoked me as if I just walked in the footsteps of luminaries.
Inside the Senate House, no single certificate was given. It was, however, handed down as graduates leave the Doctor’s Door outside the hall, near a small passage at the side of the Senate House. In some department, supervisors and lecturers usually wait at the small passage outside the door to congratulate their students. Interestingly, the small passage is open to the public and could be a bottleneck for passers-by. So, it was not uncommon to get congratulated by random by passers-by or cyclers who happen to walk down the passage.
After the last graduand had been admitted, the Esquire Bedells called the Congregation to order with the word 'Magistri'[Masters]. All stood. The VC dissolved the graduation with the words “Nos dissolvimus hanc congregationem” [We have dissolved this congregation] and left in procession led by the Esquire Bedells and followed by the Registrary, the Proctors, the Pro-Proctors and the University Marshal. Others present remained standing until the procession has passed out of the hall and then dismissed. BITTERSWEET ENDING OUTSIDE THE SANATE HOUSE
As soon as I reached the lawn outside the Senate House, it was getting dark and there was already a hive of activity. I met some of my friends before the presentation inside the Senate House and my department friends after. I made them RSVPed to my graduation a week earlier cause I know that might be my only chance to bid proper goodbye to them. Else, I might need to travel half the globe to meet this people again. Besides my families, these people were my strongest backbone throughout my years in Cambridge. If it had not been for their support, I could not have made it this far.
Time was short, so wasting it was not in the agenda. We cherished every moment and took photos at the courts grandiose façade. The day was filled with endless congratulatory handshakes and hugs. After absorbing all the positive energy from my friends, everyone was ready to call it a day. Our path diverged and steps became heavier. Although the passage of time can dull many things, I hope it will not happen to our friendships. During my master graduation, a friend organised a dinner with all parents in a local restaurant. This time I went to a dinner with friends who were still around in a Thai restaurant.
As the day progressed, I deliberately comprehend with the fact that my university time finally came to an end. When I first came to Cambridge in 2013, I thought that there was literally an eternity between now and then. But today, I was hit with the feeling of disbelief that everything was eventually over - what was once a struggle of a lifetime now stacked up well together, Alhamdulillah. I gained two degrees from this university, friendship from every continent of the world, priceless experience abroad and a soulmate. All praise to Allah.
That was that. A graduation ceremony that has the origin from the earliest custom of university; a graduation ceremony that I took I defiant joy in; and a graduation ceremony that concluded my years in academia - all cemented well in my memory. How can I sum up? In two words everything was ambivalently bittersweet but deep down I was certain that every end has a new beginning!
* Dr Zurina Moktar is an expert in business model innovation, technology commercialization and biodiversity conservation. She holds a PhD in Engineering from the University of Cambridge, UK.
** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.