Convocation Address, October 2012

October 12, 2012

Professor Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Madam Chancellor, honoured guests, members of the Board of Governors and Senate, faculty members, staff … and, most especially, graduands, families and friends.

It is my privilege, and pleasure, to preside at this celebration of your success – this culminating event of your education at Simon Fraser University.

We mark this occasion by bestowing upon you the traditional parchment, a piece of paper that provides tangible proof of your efforts – your engagement – and your accomplishments at SFU.  I hope you are as proud of that accreditation as we are proud of you.

But that certificate is, in a way, the least valuable thing that you take away from this university. The most valuable things are the intangibles.

In fact, it could be years – or decades – before you fully appreciate what those things are.

I was reminded of that this summer, while on a visit to Vienna, my mother’s birthplace.  Maureen and I took time to seek out where my mother was educated, the actual building that, in the early 1930s, was the Vienna Academy of Performing Art and Dance.

It’s now a university and the archivist, remarkably, managed to find my mother’s transcript, showing her to have been an outstanding student.

I knew that.  Having graduated from the Vienna Academy, my mother was accepted into the Tanzgruppe Bodenwieser, the creative dance company that, at the time, was the toast of Europe.  It was while touring with Bodenwieser that she met my father – at a party in London.

That meeting changed her life.  Well smitten, my father followed my mother to Vienna, where they married and lived in a small apartment until the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria by the Nazis in 1938.

This was a traumatic time for Europeans, but no more so than for Jews like my mother.  Had she remained in Austria, there can be little doubt as to her fate.

Thanks to my father’s British citizenship, however, she and her parents were able to gain entry to England – and subsequently to Canada – where they began a new life.

As much as I credit my father’s role in her escape, it occurred to me as I held my mother’s transcript in my hands, that – in a fundamental way – it was her education that saved her. 

It was the work she did, the lessons she learned and the connections she made at the Vienna Academy that enabled her to grow, to travel, and to be in London for that fortuitous connection with my father – a connection that saved her life and the lives of my grandparents.

This may seem a dramatic example.  It is – and I pray that you and I are spared such drama in our own lives.

But consider the lessons of my mother’s experience.  First, and most obviously, you cannot possibly anticipate the doors of opportunity that education will unlock in your future.  And second – as my mother might have noted leaving Austria with little more than the clothes on her back – education is something that never leaves you.

In a world where we have come to put so much store in material wealth, it is education that has the greatest capacity to enrich us as individuals and as citizens.

It’s no surprise, then, that as my parents settled in Canada – as my mother established herself as a dance teacher, helping to support her family – she maintained an unwavering reverence for education.  She never missed an opportunity to extol its virtues or to support her children and grandchildren in our studies.  

She always regarded education as the most important gift that a society can bestow upon its citizens …and the most valuable asset that an individual can acquire.  

At the same time, she recognized that an education, by its very nature, is incomplete.  A great education is not an endpoint; it is a beginning – a stepping stone on the path to a more fulfilling and productive life.

In that regard, I want to remind you that you are not leaving SFU today – nor are you concluding your education.  Rather you are taking an important step from being an SFU student to becoming a valued member of the larger community of SFU alumni.  

And, as your requirements for skills or knowledge or wisdom are tested in the future, SFU will always be here to help you take the next steps in advancing your education.

Finally, I want to thank you for the energy and enthusiasm you have brought to your studies, the contributions you have made while here, and the challenge and stimulation that you have provided to your colleagues and to the professors who have been fortunate enough to have you as students – and as inspirations.

I also want to thank your parents and extended family, as well as all of the friends and mentors whose efforts and support helped you to reach the milestone you celebrate today.

Know, as you presently cross the stage, that your accreditation distinguishes you as a graduate of Canada’s leading engaged research university.  But know also that its greater value lies before you – behind the doors your education will allow you to open in the years ahead.

Education is a gift that will only and always be yours.  I encourage you – I challenge you – to make the most of it.

Congratulations and best wishes to you all!