Why can’t kids be included when their parents graduate university?

What are our children missing out on when they’re excluded from graduation ceremonies? And what is it like for parents? Heidi North makes the case for inclusivity.

I graduated from the University of Auckland in May with a Master in Creative Writing. I’m a study-junkie, so this is the third time I’ve got a qualification from university alongside a clutch of diplomas and certificates. But aged 37, this is the first time I’ve decided to put on the gown and hood and walk across the stage and be ‘capped.’ This was partly because I knew it might be my last round with academia, and partly because attempting to write a novel in a year is damn hard work. I was so incredibly proud of my classmates, I wanted to clap and cheer and celebrate as they crossed the stage and cry with exhaustion and pride that we all made it to the end, but mostly I did this because I wanted to model this to my kids.

They are only three and four but I wanted them to retain, even if it was just the tiniest sliver, a memory of me walking across the stage so that they knew that was something they could aspire to do.

Both my father and my mother went to university – at a time when it was unusual for women to have a Bachelor Degree. My parents were feminists, even before it was cool, so I always knew that my sister and I would go to university. I assumed that the world agreed with that, it wasn’t until I was older that I realised that wasn’t  the case, it was my parents’ fierce determination to model that this was possibility and enable it that made that possible.

That was two decades ago. Now we live in a changed world. So why did I feel like my pre-school children were unwelcome at my graduation ceremony?

This is not a dig at the University of Auckland. I loved getting my degree there, I am thrilled with the programme. And, although mostly what I had heard prior to attending about the ceremony was that it was long, I surprised myself by loving, and finding meaning in, the ceremony itself. The black gown, the silky pink hood swept over my shoulder just so with the hint of tan trim, the cap, the lecturers proceeding down the aisle in their assorted robes as if we were on the set of Harry Potter. I didn’t even mind that the ceremony was over two hours long.

What I minded was that children did not seem welcome.

I’d never attended a graduation ceremony, but from what I’d heard, by bringing along my children I’d be setting my partner up for every parent’s worst nightmare: alone with two pre-schoolers in a silent auditorium.

But he’d be dealing with the haters, not I, so I agreed to do it.

Still, those dimple-faced darlings were a ticking time bomb, so I called the university and enquired when I would be likely to be being capped in the 2.5-hour time frame.

‘We just can’t say yet,’ they said.

I explained that I was bringing two small children.

‘We just can’t say.’

I pressed them, ‘Surely there is a vague run through order?’

They put me on hold.

‘Sorry, we just can’t say.’

When I asked them what I was supposed to do with my children, they said they could watch outside on the screen, but still, they couldn’t say when I might be graduating. Plus, I didn’t want my kids and partner to have to sit outside watching on the screen, I wanted them to be present and see me cross the stage in front of them. Maybe I wanted too much, but surely I wasn’t the only one who did. Several of my classmates had kids around the same age or slightly older than mine, but when I asked them if they were bringing their children they all looked at me like I was slightly insane.

Are you kidding? No.

I got nervous, but I’d already committed to bringing the kids; they were excited at the prospect.

As I was lining up to get my name tag and the ceremony booklet and find out my order I happened to run into someone I knew who was working as a marshal. He pointed my name out: I’d be going up just before the musical interlude.

“I’m bringing my kids,” I burbled, now panicking at the thought.

“You are allowed to leave, you know,” he said.

I texted my partner, simultaneously asking where he was and also saying maybe he shouldn’t bring them.

“Parking,” was his reply. They were late, which was probably a good thing, and found a seat at the very top of the Aotea Centre in the gods.

I found my place in line and as we were filling in I whispered to a classmate that I might have to swap seats with her once we’d been capped because I might have to leave early because of the kids. I pointed out the person who had passed on this secret bit of information. “You’re allowed to leave you know.”

She looked horrified. “I couldn’t,” she said.

I sat there, watching row on row of undergraduate students getting capped, realising how important it is not just for me, a white middle class women who felt like I could break the rules, but for all those parents graduating to model this to their children and surely there could be a better, more inclusive way to do this?

I also get it. Kids can be noisy, rambunctious, and fidgety. But going to university as a parent is a mammoth task. It’s financially stressful, a huge time commitment, especially if you have small children, they always want more than you have and you feel like you’re constantly fobbing them off to work on assignments, reading and juggling classes with daycare and kindy pick ups. At the end of it all you need to be able to be proud of what you have achieved.

I appreciate that people don’t want people walking out in the middle of other people’s ceremonies and I didn’t want to walk out either, but there has got to be a better way.

I love the tradition of the event but part of why it’s special is to show and share our achievement with our children.

And how did my girls go? We got lucky. They were angelic. They sat there quietly watching, clapping and waiting for their after-ceremony bribe (a fluffy). My partner took them out when I’d crossed the stage and they’d been there an hour. I snuck out in the musical interlude and as I pushed open the heavy auditorium doors, the girls ran into my arms.

The author and her family

“We saw you, we saw you!” they said, arms and hair flying. “We saw you!”

Just last week we were driving home from kindy and the youngest said, “I keep forgetting the word.”

“What word?”

“That word for the thing you did.”

“What thing? Can you give me any clues?”

“The special thing.”

She paused and thought of the words she knew that sounded almost right. But they weren’t. And my guesses were all wrong too.

“No,” she thought for a minute. It’s frustrating being four and having all the big words jumble. “You weared the pink hood.”

“Graduation?” I wasn’t expecting this; we hadn’t talked about it in a month.

“Yes,” she’s always so pleased when I get it right.

“We were waving and waving and you didn’t wave back.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. And I was. I was scanning the Aotea Centre for them way in the back and of course I didn’t see them with the stage lights in my eyes, but I wished I’d waved anyway.

And then she asked the same question she asked me on the day, about poet Courtney Sina Meredith’s excellent commencement speech about mothers and weaving stories through generations and about claiming your right to belong.

‘Why did that lady say people said she wasn’t brown enough?’

You think they’re not listening but they are. You think they’re not taking everything in, but they are.

Will they remember my graduation day? Maybe not. But now we have a story we can tell them. All parents should be able to share this with their children.

University of Auckland, it’s time to change.

Heidi North’s poetry and short stories have been published here, in Australia, the US and the UK. Heidi joined the Shanghai International Writers Programme along with ten other writers worldwide as the NZ fellow in September-October in 2016. She was awarded the Hachette/NZSA mentorship in 2017 to work on her first novel. 

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