Opinion: The value of convocation speeches: Lessons from Elizade varsity By – NIYI AKINNASO
Thinking with You Niyi Akinnaso firstname.lastname@example.org
Societies, and the institutions within them, survive and reproduce themselves through rituals, that is, established rites, ceremonies, or procedures performed at regular intervals. According to Paul Connerton, in his book, How Societies Remember, rituals allow societies to recall their past, celebrate their present, and also foreshadow their future. One such ritual in the universities is the rites associated with convocation ceremonies.
Whether you call it convocation or commencement, the event is the ceremony of conferring degrees or granting diplomas to deserving graduates, usually at the end of the academic year. The choice of usage depends on which side of the Atlantic you are located. Americans prefer commencement, while the British have long settled for convocation. For Nigerians, the latter is a colonial inheritance and, therefore, the preferred usage. At Elizade University, Ilara-Mokin, a tradition has been set to hold convocation ceremonies every year in the month of April.
Besides the award of degrees, a notable feature of convocations is a set of speeches, often beginning with the convocation lecture. More often than not, convocation speeches are heard and forgotten as they often evaporate into the euphoria of graduation and the attendant festivities. The lack of coverage of such speeches by the media also reduces their memorability. However, the speeches at the second convocation of Elizade on Friday, April 27, 2018, are worth remembering for various reasons.
It all began with the Nobel laurate, Prof Wole Soyinka, who problematised the concept of commencement in the course of his convocation lecture on Thursday, April 26, 2018 (see, Soyinka’s provocative convocation lecture at Elizade University, The Punch, May 1, 2018). Why, he asked, does commencement occur in the American university calendar at the end of the academic year, and not at the beginning? Soyinka’s answer to this question is highly instructive: “Commencement”, he concludes, “is the name of creativity, of renewal, the gathering of forces before the setting out, a journey that is never ended but merely paused, recommencing when it appears to have reached destination … we return to that same tree of commencement to re-group, re-think and attempt to revitalise waning passion”. This makes commencement or convocation a prototypical ritual or regeneration.
I return here to the same tree of commencement, by repositioning the central messages in the speeches delivered by five key speakers at the recent Elizade University convocation. The major speakers were the Founder and Visitor, Chief Michael Ade.Ojo, OON; the Chancellor, Dr. Gbenga Oyebode, MFR; the Pro-Chancellor, Aigboje Aig-Imokhuede; the Acting Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Yemi Fadayomi; and the Valedictorian, Ms. Elizabeth Abidemi Ajagunna.
Three themes dominated the five speeches, namely, convocation as a rite of passage and ritual of renewal; the role of convocation ceremonies in the drive towards excellence; and emphasis on the role and functions of university education.
In his welcome address, Aig-Imokhuede emphasised the ritual nature of convocation ceremonies by picking on the theme of renewal in congratulating the graduands: “Today, we are not celebrating the finish of a sprint race. We are celebrating the completion of another lap in a continuing marathon towards the attainment of our vision. To this end, I would like to say hearty congratulations to the graduating class of 2018”.
Oyebode reinforced the same theme in his message to the graduands: “Please note … this is just a close of a chapter in your lives and the beginning of another in which you will be expected to be responsible for your decisions and actions”. He then moved on to the university’s drive for excellence, as enshrined in its slogan, “Let’s go higher”. So, he told the graduands, “Our expectation and prayer is that you will carry the culture of excellence, which this school has helped you to imbibe, into your future endeavours”.
The idea of regeneration is also central to Chief Ade.Ojo’s speech in which the symbolism of the tree recalls Soyinka’s use of the tree as the leitmotif of his convocation lecture. Commenting on the second convocation, the Founder said: “This is the second human harvest of the Tree of Knowledge planted by Elizade University five years ago”.
He also emphasised the role of the university in developing the mind: “True, the university throws up various courses, the real essence of these courses is to develop competencies, including critical and creative thinking, analytical capabilities, and the ability to think out of the box. These are all transferable skills, which will enable our students to be tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and leaders”.
Ms. Ajagunna, the student valedictorian, picked up on the present and future of her fellow graduands: “The certificate that we receive represents our success and achievements; but beyond that, some values are already implanted in us all. Though abstract, these values propel us to interpret our certificates at the larger world and display skills that are beyond what certificates can show. We are now set to begin the next chapter in our individual life stories”.
One of the graduands, Ms. Abisola Animashaun, displayed precisely the set of values and competencies beyond the face value of degree certificates. She won the Founder’s Business Empowerment Award of N5 million to start off her company. Ms. Animashaun was a first class graduate of Mass Communication, who applied the knowledge and entrepreneurial skills she acquired at EU to fill a service gap in the society. As the Founder put it in his speech, “Her company, called GasUrgently, will be the first Mobile Cooking Gas Filling Station in the country”.
In his own convocation speech, Prof. Fadayomi provided a direct challenge to the graduands as they face the real world, by focusing his speech on the role of youths in the revitalisation and development of Nigeria. As opposed to war times, when the leaders called on the youths for conscription to the army, some members of the Nigerian political class are now calling on youth participation in political leadership.
Fadayomi cautioned both parties. He challenged the political class to create the necessary space for youth participation, while reminding the youths of the wise admonition of the late Tai Solarin that the road to leadership and meaningful development is “rough”.
However, by far the greatest caution to the graduands was provided by Chief Ade.Ojo. Reading from Word for Today, published by the United Christian Broadcasters, he rounded off his speech by warning the graduands not to be sluggards. In other words, they should not feel that they are entitled to things without being willing to do the necessary labour to obtain them.
As the EU convocation closed on Friday, April 27, 2018, three major tasks had been accomplished. First, certificates and prizes were awarded to graduating students. Second, the fresh graduates were praised, encouraged, admonished, warned, and otherwise sensitised to the vicissitudes of the world and years ahead of them. Third, the Elizade University brand and the drive for excellence were displayed with pride for the world to see. In less than a year from now, the convocation ritual will be repeated and these same tasks will be accomplished.Punch