I flew 15 hours for a five-second ceremony: a father's reflections on graduation day

My daughter walks to the stage. Short, measured, graceful steps, not a hint of being overawed. Or so it seems to me...

Soumya Bhattacharya with his wife and daughter at the latter's graduation ceremony in Vancouver. Photo: Soumya Bhattacharya
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Towering maple trees cast cool shadows on the paved pathways on the campus. The sky is blindingly blue, the greenery lush and abundant. A stiff spring breeze freshens the air. The ocean, framed by mountains, their peaks still snow-streaked, glints in the distance. And then there are the thousands upon thousands of exultant faces.

New graduates. Accompanied by proud, smiling parents. Only a few of the fathers are in formal clothes. Most of them wear smart casuals. The mothers, some in ethnic clothes and jewellery, are all decked up.

Graduation day on the campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver is like no other. You can sniff the sense of well-being in the atmosphere.

My daughter is one of these newly minted graduates with a major in English literature and a minor in creative writing. We have been invited to – and attended – a reception organised by the English department. Cakes, coffee and custom-made chocolates monogrammed with the insignia of the university are passed around.

Tuum Est is UBC’s motto. Printed below a crest of ocean waves beneath a setting sun, it translates from the Latin as "It is yours". This day – after four years of hard work, of making new friends and forging new paths, of learning to live away from home, of fending for oneself, of negotiating complications and crises as one turns from teenager to adult – this day is purely theirs. Tuum Est.

My daughter stands in a long, snaking line to collect the regalia she – and every other graduate – has rented for the day. Cap and gown that transform a 21-year old, that lend gravitas, a scholarly air. Or is that just me?

In August 2019, we had come, my wife, daughter and I, as she started life as a university student halfway across the world from her Delhi home. The day she moved into her campus accommodation (my wife and I stayed on for a few more days after she moved, doleful and intermittently weeping), my daughter and I had watched Liverpool crush Arsenal – the football team we fanatically support – in the Premier League on the TV in the Airbnb in which we were staying.

On the way to the campus – a long drive that felt as though it were not long enough, that seemed to be snatching her away too soon, too abruptly, from us after 18 years of togetherness – our taxi barrelled into a car coming from the opposite direction. Ill omens, I’d thought. But now, here amid the mountains and the sea, the stately trees and vast sweep of the campus, her undergraduate years are about to end on a high note.

More than 15,000 students graduate from UBC every year. The university allots slots for students throughout the day over several days. Each convocation ceremony lasts two hours. Our daughter’s slot is from 1pm to 3pm. After the ceremony, each graduate – having instantaneously turned into a UBC alumnus by dint of the precious degree she hugs to herself – is treated to a glass of wine by the university. It is a generous gesture.

The convocation is held at the Chan Centre for Performing Arts – a huge, vaulted, domed thing on the edge of the sea, all lavish chandeliers and stuccoed pillars, giant TV screens and tier upon tier of upholstered seating.

The ceremony is immaculately choreographed. Music. Brief, stirring speeches. The students asked to take a moment to stand with their backs to the stage and thank their families. Resounding, sincere applause.

Then the name of each graduate is called out. When her turn comes, our daughter walks to the stage. Short, measured, graceful steps, not a hint of being overawed. Her name is pronounced perfectly. Her image beamed on the giant screen, she takes the stage, faces the audience, collects her degree, and smiles. It is a poised smile, infused as much with relief as pleasure. Or so it seems to me.

She makes her way back to her seat. It is over. The whole sequence takes all of five seconds. When I email an English writer friend about this, he responds: “Yes, five seconds, but what five seconds!”

We troop out, the entire packed auditorium, after the graduates have been allowed to leave first. We assemble at the Flagpole Plaza, where a huge marquee has been erected for the occasion. Her three closest friends – none of whom graduated in this particular slot – are waiting.

My daughter is not one for the public display of affection. I shake her hand, squeezing it a bit harder than usual, and say: “Many congratulations!” Her friends find this unaccountably funny.

There are pictures and more pictures. Each of her friends takes literally hundreds – various backdrops, gown on, gown off, cap on, cap off, throwing cap up in the air – and airdrop them on to her phone.

On such a day, even the enactment of a cliche seems original, a joyous action. My daughter tells me: “I froze on the stage. I blanked out. I can’t remember those seconds at all.”

On this sun-drenched afternoon, the tail of her gown fluttering in the wind, the seagulls wheeling and dipping above us, we head to the bar where she will be served her richly deserved glass of wine.

In a sense, it all feels a little underwhelming to me: to fly 15 hours to be witness to those five seconds. In another sense, though, it appears freighted with symbolism, layered with significance. Graduation day is a unique celebration. It is also a unique milestone. Onwards and upwards.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the author of six books, among them Dad’s the Word, about the pleasures and perils of fatherhood

Updated: June 16, 2023, 6:02 PM