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2024 Encaenia
Elisabeth Stones’ Baccalaureate Service Address

Elisabeth Stones' Baccalaureate Service Address

Delivered May 23, 2024

I would like to begin by thanking the Rev’d Dr. Ranall Ingalls for asking me to speak today. I confess, when he asked me to do this I was certain he was making a mistake. Even if we were to put aside my many other inadequacies, I told him, “I don’t think I’ll be recognizable to most of our students.” But I’ve spent most of my work life in positions where I had to ask people to take on responsibilities, so I had great sympathy for Ranall’s dilemma. He kindly assured me he thought I might have something to offer, and I’ll endeavour not to let him down.

To those of you who do not, indeed, recognize me, my name is Elisabeth Stones, and I am the administrative assistant for the Foundation Year Program. Even in pre-COVID yesteryear, mine was a behind-the-scenes sort of job. I spent my days on the 3rd floor of the NAB, glued to my spreadsheets and shuffling the material culture of FYP (financial forms, books and Handbooks, and, of course, the infamous FYP papers.) Way back then, every FYP Monday, students would bring their hard copy papers to my office, then I would – as quickly as possible – record each paper’s arrival and sort them so the tutors could pick them up for grading. Once the marked papers trickled back, I’d update the grade sheet and students would drop by to pick them up from me in the office.

This all sounds extremely old-fashioned and quaint – even to me – now, after the onset of COVID-19 and the indelible change it brought to nearly every level of our interactions.

Many of you graduands this year began your time at King’s during that strange fall term in 2020. “Social isolation” was the term of the day, and institutions and individuals alike tried to figure out how something like a university, a course, or indeed a whole program, worked when finding connection meant navigating a six-foot separation or a screen, when gathering in classrooms – or even residence rooms – was perilous and perhaps even unwise. When many of our students spent the year scattered across the continent and beyond.

Until this point there had been at least one thing we could take for granted in the Foundation Year Program: everyone would be spending lots of time together, and a certain amount of cohesiveness would form organically. Even though my own FYP year was one of the largest FYP classes to date, I could recognize and probably even now tell you a little about most students in my cohort. We just saw each other all the time!

But in FYP 2020-21, that easy route to familiarity was wiped away, and without active effort, we could easily remain strangers to each other all year.

That fall in 2020, I had just returned from maternity leave days before classes began, already a stranger to myself after a harrowing year, first becoming a parent (an obviously joyful but deeply unsettling experience), then shortly afterwards coping with a tragedy that shook my extended family, returning from that funeral just a few weeks before the world shut down. I had been socially isolating “before it was cool.”

I know I wasn’t the only person that September who showed up rattled and confused – even more than one usually is at the outset of a university degree or a new school year. What we were trying to do was bizarre and, to some degree, impossible. What is education if not coming to see others, and being seen in return? How does one learn – and teach – when the fundamental ways we relate to each other have to be channeled exclusively through Zoom, email, and Brightspace? But day after day, in tutorials and General Tutorials, in “Read Now”s and “Night FYP” events on Zoom, in journalism and HOST and MFA classes, you dared to tenaciously pursue knowing. As the world outside contracted, you opened yourself nonetheless to your texts, engaged your classmates, and took into yourself eras and perspectives as alien and unimaginable as a hard-copy FYP essay! This was an act of resistance; of hope. This was a determination to believe there would be a tomorrow full of souls, and you would greet them.

Upon our return to in-person classes the following year, which took place in stages and with the occasional setback, we began to rebuild our in-person community. Each of you has pursued your studies inside and outside of classrooms, opening yourselves to painful truths, quandaries and convictions. The foundations you laid during that wild year have sustained you as you stretched towards your own areas of specialization and interest, and they will remain an indelible part of who you are for decades to come.

Now, at the other end of your degree, you again face a daunting world full of strangers. It is my hope that as you go out among them, you carry with you the strengths you have cultivated during your time here – to see others as they are, and (perhaps more terrifyingly) to be seen as you are. I hope you bring the same courage and resilience (and willingness to do something a little bit nutty) to the next stage, and the next after that, as you did when you decided to take a chance on university during a global pandemic.

And I know that when you do, the world will hold fewer strangers.



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