This Spring saw Queen’s first in-person convocation since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. It was a gloriously festive event with two ceremonies every day for five days, during which graduands from 2022 as well as the two previous years were able to cross the stage, receive much-deserved congratulations, and savour their success. Few people in attendance can have believed we will see no more of COVID-19, but it was impossible not to notice amongst graduates and their families a very powerful sense of relief, of having emerged from an ordeal – even if their pandemic experience remained incompletely understood, etched in the memory, and was in that sense still present.
I was reminded of “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through,” a poem written by D.H. Lawrence in 1914, in which the speaker feels transported by “a fine wind… blowing the new direction of Time” and longs to be an instrument of transformation and revelation. “The rock will split,” he writes, and “we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.” Such was the tangible optimism of our graduates, even in the knowledge that – as in the Lawrence poem – the future may bring “strange angels,” threats as well as promises, grief as well as joy. “Admit them, admit them” is how the poem ends, reminding us that the richness of life inheres in its variety and contradictoriness.
In my comments at convocation, I took note of a recent report suggesting that people the age of our students “are using the pandemic’s reality shift as an opportunity to make major life changes,”1 to rethink values and behaviours that before the pandemic seemed effectively immutable, and I indicated the university’s profound support for them in their hopes and aspirations for a better world. If the pandemic did indeed strike a blow against the innocent optimism of the young, it nevertheless also imparted a sense of urgency and quickened their desire to have a positive impact in their lives.
Young people are not alone in thinking this way. One of the welcome consequences of the last two years is that human beings everywhere are seeking out the kind of positive experiences that define and validate them as human. Evidence of this is everywhere discernible, not least in the intensity with which we have re-engaged with the arts, discovered a new appreciation for nature, or reached for a deeper and more constructive understanding of our place on this planet.
This issue of the Queen’s Alumni Review reflects some of the breadth of that engagement in our university community. Our longstanding commitment to the arts and humanities, as well as to basic and applied science and to the highest standards in professional education: all of this confirms the place of Queen’s as a university for the future, whatever challenges it may bring.
How wonderful that “admit them, admit them” is Lawrence’s way of encouraging us to embrace the future in all its complexities – because in my mind those words echo the formula used by the Chancellor at convocation when he “admits” students to their degrees, “with all their rights, privileges, and responsibilities.”
Originally published in the Alumni Review.