Some students pass through the university system barely touching the sides: they arrive, they study, they graduate, and they are gone, fate and whereabouts unknown. Other students stick in our minds, sometimes in our lives, because of their personality, their abilities, or their personal issues, and are remembered and talked of long after their graduation. They may go on to become friends and stay in touch, perhaps via social media such as our Department’s Facebook group.
These are just two extremes of a continuum of course, and whatever type of student they were, we hope that they all enjoy their time at university and go on to lead full and happy lives.
This was on my mind last Thursday, a day of contrasts. In the morning I joined colleagues on the stage at Northampton’s Derngate Theatre to watch as this summer’s graduands filed across the stage, shook hands with the Vice Chancellor, received their certificates, and left the stage as graduates. The accompanying applause from family, other students, and staff was constant and genuine: everyone wishes these new graduates well in their futures.
Chatting with a group of them afterwards, it was clear that a number have a good idea of what they wish to do, though others are less sure. One will be heading to Tanzania for a month of fieldwork with the Tropical Biology Association, an organisation I’ve become involved with over the last few years. Others are planning to work for the summer then launch into Master’s degrees. Some have already found jobs and are beginning their careers. Lots of possibilities and uncertainties, an exciting time for them. It was the kind of morning that made me realise how the work we do as university lecturers and researchers changes the lives of individuals, hopefully for the better.
These thoughts were reinforced in the afternoon when my colleague Janet Jackson and I attended the funeral of one of our 2006 graduates, Nick Wallis. It could have been a very sombre event, but it was not, thanks mainly to Nick himself and the way he interacted with people. Nick was a student who stuck in our minds, in part because of his intelligence, his passionate interest in the natural world, his willingness to ask questions, and his dry, sardonic wit. Nick was also the most physically disadvantaged student we have ever taught: muscular dystrophy had confined him to a motorised wheelchair and he had limited movement of his body. So we had to accommodate Nick’s disabilities but also had the opportunity to get to know him and enjoy his contributions to class discussions and the life of the Department.
Nick’s funeral was well attended, St Luke’s church in Kislingbury packed with family, friends, and neighbours. His brother Tom read a moving tribute, and the reverend, who had known Nick for some time, gave a heartfelt account of his life and personality, his love of gardening and of the natural world, his sense of humour. He also touched upon Nick’s controversial, though widely admired, decision to write about his own views and experiences of relationships, intimacy and sex as a profoundly physically disabled man. It was a tremendously brave thing for Nick to do and aired important issues that are still largely ignored by our society. Yes, Nick was certainly one of those students we were guaranteed to remember.
That evening I headed to London to catch up with some of my old university friends, a group of mates I’ve written about in the past. In the pub we talked families and jobs, politics and recent news; and friendships, about how the friends you make at university tend to be the ones that remain closest to you for the rest of your life. Twenty five years after graduation we are still able to enjoy one another’s company, something we all value in ways that we can’t always express.
So to this year’s summer graduates, the best of luck to you, and whatever you do now, don’t forget the friends that you’ve made during your time at Northampton.
And to Nick, thanks for being part of our lives; rest in peace.