Celebrating graduation in times of pandemic – Dr Sarah Mares

You, like me, must have been looking forward to the formal PhD graduation ceremony to mark the end of doctoral candidature at Flinders and the next phase of your professional and personal life.

I was in the first intake of the Flinders Medical School back in 1974. Years later, I have completed a PhD by prior publication as an external student living in Sydney.

The 18 months of PhD candidature in the College of Medicine and Public Health was the culmination of 18 plus years of research and writing about the impact of immigration detention on children and families who seek asylum.

It has been a long time, not only for me, but for my family too. Therefore, my loved ones decided that nothing can stop a celebration that marks the end of this journey, not even COVID-19! Thank YOU, my dear family.

Our house is fuller than usual because my son and daughter in law who usually live in the USA were here for a friend’s wedding when the COVID shutdown happened. They didn’t fly back and are living with us for as long as it takes.

Mostly without my knowledge and involvement, about 40 family and friends across Australia and New Zealand were invited to a zoom event on Sunday afternoon, 19 April. I was banned from my small study for most of the day and told to be out of my pyjamas by 3.30pm.

At that time, Carlotta, my daughter in law, dressed in a cocktail dress and a deep blue velvet cape took me aside. She pulled out a borrowed academic gown, a medieval bonnet, a red scarf and a handmade golden hat tassel and dressed me for the ceremony. My husband appeared as a Virtual Vice-Chancellor (VVC) wearing a borrowed hat and a gown. My son took the role of an IT and Events Manager.

Suddenly it was all happening. With the assistance of a blue shower curtain hung over the bookcase and a zoom virtual backdrop, my tiny PhD study was magically transformed into a great hall with clapping crowds behind us.

At the podium made of a cardboard box on a table draped with a tablecloth, stood the Virtual Vice-Chancellor welcoming the assembled guests, all of whom were visible on a monitor in front of us. The VVC explained that in these times of adversity it was only possible to graduate one student at a time and that it was my lucky day today!

After a short speech, a mysterious professor from Milan (in a body of my daughter in law) presented my award. Then a total surprise – my three supervisors (I could not have done it without you!) appeared in a short video talking about the thesis and our experiences together. I was very moved and grateful to hear from them.

I gave a short thank you speech, then my Mum (who did her PhD in her 50’s and is now 91), and a long-term colleague and collaborator on the work spoke, and the formalities ended with a ‘grand procession’.

We all reassembled for celebratory drinks in the ‘ante room’ borrowed from Buckingham Palace, where more informal celebrations followed. Comments were posted in the zoom chat or verbally with my daughter and the granddaughter contributing from their home. The dog had a good time too and only got trodden on once or twice.

It was all over in 45 minutes, the ceremony, the speeches, the drinks and I absolutely loved it! We had fun and it helped me to appreciate the milestone that receiving of a PhD is. I felt celebrated and very grateful.

Do something like it if you can, with or without costumes and backdrops. The dressing up was entertaining, the IT genius much appreciated but marking this significant achievement with my family, friends and colleagues was at the heart of it.

I am sad that we could not gather together to graduate and celebrate our achievements. Let’s hope that this will happen one day.

Meanwhile, thank you to my wonderful supervisors, Professor Malcolm Battersby, A/ Professor Anna Ziersh, and Dr Rene Pols and to Professor Tara Brabazon and the HDR staff. And well-deserved congratulations to all the newly minted Doctors!

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