“This would have been our biggest graduation”
Caroline Lehany has been the mastermind behind the University of Sussex’s graduation ceremonies for 22 years.
If it hadn’t been for Covid-19, this is would have been our biggest ever Graduation. We were planning to have 13 ceremonies at the Brighton Centre over five days, with about 2000 people at each ceremony — 400 students and the remainder in guests. We’re a small team — just four full time members of staff and a graduate intern — and this is usually our favourite time of year.
We know that students want to come to a real ceremony, which is why we didn’t do a virtual ceremony this year. But External Relations have done a brilliant job creating a virtual celebration this year as well as pulling together to send out 4,500 certificates and transcripts.
We hope that in 2021 we will be able to hold large-scale events again and to be able to invite our students to a ceremony. This year’s graduates have missed all their end of term celebrations, so it’s even more important to bring them back together. I am sure it will be an even more special event for everyone.
Sussex graduation ceremonies have a great reputation for being full of fun and warmth. We know it’s such an important occasion for our students and their families and friends. They will remember the day for the rest of their lives, and they certainly make it memorable. We’ve had them doing the conga and we’ve had marriage proposals…We are delighted that we receive so much positive feedback and we are continually looking at ways we can make the ceremonies even better.
Richard Attenborough introduced the warmth to our ceremonies when he became Chancellor in 1998. He would say to the audience: “It’s your day too. Feel free to shout, make noise and celebrate your person going across the stage.” Up until that point Sussex graduations were very formal occasions. It was a great honour to work with him. Even though the ceremonies were very tiring for him, Richard was a consummate professional and the graduands, their friends and family and the staff were utterly enthralled by him.
We’re equally lucky to work with our current Chancellor, Sanjeev Bhaskar. He cares so much about all our students and wants every ceremony to be as great as it can be. He’s always willing to join in with whatever the students ask him to do during their moment in the spotlight, from learning complicated dance moves, to greeting small babies and children who often accompany the students on stage. Occasionally things don’t quite go to plan, such as the time a student rugby tackled Sanjeev. There was a sharp intake of breath throughout the auditorium and a sigh of relief when Sanjeev jumped back up again.
It was lovely when the University awarded an honorary doctorate to Sanjeev on the occasion of his 10th anniversary as Chancellor last year. I smuggled his wife, Meera Syal, and their son and Sanjeev’s parents and sister into the auditorium and then had the privilege of robing Sanjeev on stage before he was presented with his honorary doctorate. He was so surprised and overwhelmed when the spotlight was turned onto his family and he ran down into the auditorium to greet them. That was a really special moment.
What we particularly love is when our students wear their national dress. We’ve seen fabulous outfits from Nigeria, China, Japan, Scotland…although many years ago there was a surprise in store for all of us. We had a student walk across with his gown wrapped around him. We thought he was in beachwear, which does sometimes happen! But after he shook hands with Richard and collected his certificate, he opened his gown to reveal that he was wearing nothing underneath. We all sat there in shock until the student left the stage! To avoid a repeat, we do now check for nudity!
Organising graduation is a year round job as we are have often have to make arrangements years in advance. We never stop. In addition to the ceremonies in Brighton, we have held ceremonies in Qatar, China and India. It’s so lovely to give students the opportunity to graduate in their own countries and often with families who are not able to travel to the UK. As well as graduation, my team organises over 50 events throughout the year — and throughout the world. They range from staff long-service lunches to alumni reunions in Singapore.
For each day of graduation we have around 350 members of staff coming to the Brighton Centre. They include the platform procession and all the other staff that help with gowning, giving out tickets, welcoming staff, etc. It’s true ‘single-team working’, and frequently staff have said this is the best thing we do. I love seeing how happy everyone is, but also how brilliant our colleagues are. It isn’t just about the ceremony, it’s about the arrival and how welcomed everyone feels.
I am particularly moved when we make posthumous awards. I feel privileged to be able to help the families on that difficult journey. We pay great attention to these awards because it is important for us and for them to celebrate the late student’s life and their academic achievement. Also the families have the opportunity to talk to the late student’s friends and tutors on the day.
People ask me, how do you sleep at night with that level of responsibility on your shoulders? I used to have sleepless nights but now I have a fantastic team around me. We do our very best to think of every eventuality. We have spare shirts, we can sew on buttons, and we even have buckets at either side of the stage for those students who are feel sick with nerves.
I think it’s important for all staff to attend at least one graduation ceremony — just to see why we’re all here, and to see the celebration and the joy of it. Everybody who works at the University has their part to play, they’ve all helped students on their way. And it’s great for the students to see them at graduation — not just their tutors, but those who look after the campus,or who given them support and advice in other capacities. Graduation really is a celebration for everyone who’s involved with the life of the University.
Interview by Jacqui Bealing