Sunday, August 12, 2007

Commencement and Convocation: The Tradition of the Lee's Family

The concluding highlight of an academic pursuit is the commencement ceremony (convocation in Malaysia) during which graduates take their turn to march up the stage to receive their well-earned scrolls among pomp and pageantry. It marks the official end to the toil, to burning the midnight oil, to the frequent visits to the snake temples (a less than savory allusion to university libraries often used in Malaysia, snakes being the metaphor for cunning in this case, and the libraries being places where students sneak away to do some serious mugging while maintaining the illusion of outwardly cool dudes who look askance at poring over the books with disdain, vanity at its purest, at least during my time) and bestows a veritable stamp on one’s learning prowess. The latter perception may have been diluted somewhat by the present-day sprouting of degree mills that purportedly cater to the hectic schedules of working professionals.

At the school level, the same is often called a graduation ceremony, and here it’s one that we have attended, that of our younger daughter. But here I’m going to blog about my own experience, at the college level since those days we did not have elaborate graduation ceremonies at the school level save for the achievement award ceremonies conducted on the last day of schools during which only the top achievers got to parade their prizes for all to see. And I did make a few laps of those on my own. But back to the universities.

I got my bachelor degree in 1978, and attended my first ever convocation on June 17, 1978, if memory serves me right. Little did I know that this would also be my last, for now, as I shall relate later in the blog.

I remember we drove to KL in my (then future) father-in-law’s car from my home town, my late Mom, my younger sister, and my soon-to-be-officially wedded wife included in the entourage. The exact proceeding has become a blur, but I must have sat among the graduates, in regalia (gown, mortar board and sash, the latter being a shining orange color). Then I must have walked primly up on the stage, smilingly receiving the scroll from the VC (I have a photo as testimony but it was left back home. Increasingly this lapse in my pre-departure preparation afew years back has come back to haunt me, especially since I started my second life, one of blogging).

There must be tons of speeches before then, knowing the penchant of my countrymen for public address, but their details escape me. The entire ceremony was staged in what I still feel as the most stately building in the entire campus of University of Malaysia (UM), the Dewan Tunku Chanselor (DTC for short), with its granite block walls all around, vertically slitted with grass panes that enable one to peek inside (I think). The entrance is graced by several inter-connected koi ponds while the Experiment Theatre (where many drama performances were featured) abuts its back. It’s no small wonder that after close to 30 years, I still remember vividly that image.

I also remember taking photos in the campus, with all members of my entourage. We actually intended to put up a night in Petaling Jaya (PJ) (the UM campus straddles the border of KL/PJ). I remember driving to the PJ Hilton, but apparently the hotel rate must have put my off, considering then I was only a fresh government engineer of a few month’s tenure, drawing a monthly attachment pay of a couple of hundreds ringgit (Malaysian dollars). So it turned out to be a day’s trip, as we had originally planned for.

Subsequently, I have two more opportunities to partake of the solemn ceremony here in US. The first followed from my Masters degree study at UCB, in May 1987. But the traveling bug caught us just in time, that being my last opportunity to take in the natural setting of the Western US. So instead of making a beeline to the open air Greek theatre and be part of the proud history of Cal Bears, we began our two-week trek, in a rented car that is, swinging by Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and back to Albany, California. Sites visited included Salt Lake City, Dinosaur Crater, Yellow Stone Park (The Old Faithful geysers), Jackson Hole (elk country) where we witnessed a horse parade by the local Native Americans and an arch (or portal) made of Elk antlers, a meadow reminiscent of the Little House in the Prairie TV series, a picture of verdant grasslands and fragrant flowers, CSU at Fort Collins (when we visited the late Dr. Hiew who would complete his Ph.D. at the end of the same year, which is no mean feat, flying through the doctoral course in 3 years), Grand Teton Dam, The Hoover Dam, Las Vegas.

I remember we lost about half a day when the front disc brake of our rented car gave up on us, emitting a jarring noise that made me cringe. And we had to languish at a tire shop somewhere in Albuquerque for the brake replacement.

But all in all, I did not regret missing the commencement for the two-week road trip, seeing more places perhaps more than a lifetime of some people. It was both an educational and inspiring experience that could not be substituted by a half-day attendance at a human-filled setting, perhaps a case of you never know what you're missing until you are there.

Then there was the commencement at the end of my Ph.D. study, at UF. This time, it was kind of beyond my control. I had planned to finish the requirements by the end of 1994, after a 4-year free-rein roaming across the academic arena, with some double-backs to add to the drama. But it was not to be. I could not make the deadline to graduate by the end of that fall semester. I was only able to submit my dissertation by January the following spring and had to register for another 3 credits to maintain my student status. So we returned to Malaysia in early February, 1995, not able to attend the Spring 1995 commencement slated for May 1995.

Then my elder D graduated at the end of 2005, from U. Oregon. But we did not make it to her commencement either. Neither did she, come to think of it. So the legacy of not attending one’s commencement in our family, at least at the college level, continues. Two more opportunities beckon in the horizon, our younger son (class of 2010), and younger daughter (class of 2011). Let’s plan for them, shall we?

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