Let’s start at the end, attending the call

This week, my university had its annual convocation. It took me back to my student days. I had come to the convocation with my brother, my parents and my grandmother. I remember hugging my family after the call. This time, having been involved in the organization of the call, I have realized the great amount of work and trouble required to hold an event of this type. If I were to go back in time to my convocation, I would start by hugging the Secretary.

One might wonder why we make such a fuss about the call? Why invest time, money and space in an event that is really about handing out certificates? There is a bigger problem with summonses. Convocations come with academic gifts consisting of gowns and hoods. The events have an elaborate script, with addresses from the head of the institution and a chief guest. There are many people on stage, of various denominations and ages. Most of them maintain a stoic posture for a couple of hours. I looked so sad, a friend texted me to ask if I could smile a little more. All in all, the calls sound like a lot of unnecessary work and irrelevant ceremonies. Why would young people attend such a thing?

But young people should love calls, and rightly so. Convocations are the culmination of an academic cycle of at least three years that provides a sense of formal closure to students. Formal closings are important institutional milestones in students’ lives and provide a vivid demonstration of the end of the educational stage of their lives. You need the pomp and glamour, the lobby and the red carpet, the mace and the bouquets; a bare certificate should not book your life at University.

The calls are also a moment of reflection. The University, through its manager, reflects on where it has come so far and what needs to be done in the future. The chief guest, if he chooses, gives excellent life hacks to the students. In the United States, these are called graduation addresses, and those of Steve Jobs and David Foster Wallace are popular and still circulate on the web today, even though they were delivered nearly two decades ago. Last Sunday, Nandan Nilekani spoke at my university and gave an equally rousing speech, in which he exhorted students to create structures that give people agency, because only then can social systems work at scale.

Invitations are important for another reason: they offer a unique opportunity to share in the joy of others. Let me try to make this less haunted. As you know, emotional bonds between people are instrumentally good, because you build a community you can depend on because your lives are better when you share it with a network of friends. One of the profound challenges facing your generation is that social media, while ensuring hyperconnectivity among your peers, has devalued the emotional connections between people that are so important to both mental health and professional advancement

The calls are one of the few occasions when the entire ecosystem is built by emphasizing the emotional bonds between people. Your family and friends are there to see you graduate after years of hard work and perseverance. We are here to congratulate you on your success. These moments create their own magic.

After the convocation was over, I spent some time chatting with the graduating students under a shamiana set up nearby, where lunch was being served. It was an unseasonably hot Bengaluru afternoon, but no one seemed concerned about the weather. Many students came up to me and shared their future plans. As I conversed with them, I was reminded that all educational administration ultimately boils down to this: a moment when students, parents and teachers come together and consecrate the beginning of a new stage of life and renewed hopes .

Graduates aren’t the only ones who benefit from a call. I strongly believe that all current students should attend their universities annual convocation. Very often, students, especially in their first year of college, tend to skip the convocation ceremony altogether. This is a mistake. It is an occasion where idealism meets its natural habitat. Notice how relieved and happy your seniors are at the same time. Even some of the normally grumpy teachers will be in a good mood and inclined to chat with you. When else will you have this opportunity to develop a relationship with people outside the boundaries of the University? But don’t forget to hug the Registrar.

The writer is the Registrar of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.

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