During this last year, as I worked through the second year of my Masters, I’ve been thinking a lot about graduation. Primarily, I thought a lot about whether it would even happen – in person, that is; last year’s graduation was done online – and what it would be like, what it would feel like to graduate with a Masters and a Masters completed for the most part during a global pandemic and multiple national lockdowns. The whole idea seemed surreal. I was mostly thinking about my university’s award ceremony, our unofficial graduation since we officially graduate from the University of East London (UEL) – such complications are a part of life at a specialised university, I guess. I hadn’t thought much about the UEL graduation; I’m glad I went for my BA but it doesn’t feel like my university so I wasn’t super invested in going one way or another. Even if it’s more symbolic than official, my university’s awards ceremony was what I thought about when I thought about graduation.
But, as is often the case, graduation was much more complicated than I’d imagined. It’s big and complicated and emotional but long story short, my graduation isn’t official yet. I’m not entirely sure when it will be but I’m following it all up. And as my final project supervisor said, “the graduation is not the achievement – that is in you. Regardless of when you receive the MA certificate, you are Lauren Hooper, MA.” That has really helped me, over and over again through this last part of the journey, and it definitely helped me make the most of the day.
There are various different parts or different layers to this day so I thought I’d split them up and look at them one by one…
I stressed A LOT about what to wear to graduation. I’ve struggled with body image for a long time and, to be completely honest, I struggle daily not to get sucked down the rabbit hole of hating how I look. That, combined with just really wanting to feel good about myself for such a special occasion, meant I had multiple meltdowns and almost meltdowns over the whole thing. It’s just a very loaded thing for me, especially at the moment it seems. So that was a big thing to throw into an already complicated and emotional situation. I went back and forth on multiple options and only at around midnight the night before did I make the final decision.
Probably because I’d spent so much time thinking about how I felt and how I felt about how I looked, it didn’t really occur to me to think about anyone else’s reaction; people commenting on my appearance isn’t something that happens very often. But suddenly, there were all of these people – including people I didn’t even know – saying really nice things and I didn’t really know how to respond to them. It was kind of surreal, nice but still surreal and strange. As I said, it’s just a really loaded and difficult place in my head. I loved the way it sparkled under the lights when I walked across the stage but then I look at the photos of myself and… I really struggle with looking at photos of myself. This whole topic really needs its own post but it was part of the day and so I didn’t want to leave it out. I’m trying to separate how I feel when I look at the photos and how it felt to hear people say positive things. That’s all I can do right now.
Between a very early alarm and getting to London in time, it wasn’t the most relaxing start to the day and I found it very stressful (which didn’t help the migraine and nausea I had to battle all day – it was unfortunate that coming off my antidepressant and graduation overlapped). But we got there (Union Chapel is a beautiful venue and it was very cool to be graduating there), the COVID precautions were really good, and it wasn’t long before I was heading in with a handful of my coursemates.
There was the usual sprinkle of chaos. We had to get into order by surname, despite the fact that a not insignificant number of us had never met or even seen each other in the one set of online lectures we all had together. And it didn’t help that multiple people had been left out of the program (and some, myself included, didn’t get the official certificate after crossing the stage). So it was… interesting. But it was lovely to see some many people that have been a pretty significant part of the last two years of my life; I’m just sad that some of my favourite people couldn’t be there due to other commitments.
There were five or so courses that walked the stage before us, plus the head of each course gave a speech. Given how little time I was actually onsite during my course (not even six months of the two years), I was surprised how many people I knew. When you’re in the building, it’s not hard to end up becoming friends with people from other courses but with everything online, those casual encounters don’t happen and, to me at least, it felt like the different courses existed in their own bubbles. But having said that, I realised I knew a lot more people than I thought and it was an unexpected bonus to get to celebrate their achievements along with those of my close friends and coursemates. And some of the speeches were great, inspiring and moving; there were some great quotes there that I’ll take away with me.
When it was our turn, the head of our course gave a great speech and then, one by one, we were walking across the stage. Because they didn’t have my certificate (due to the aforementioned screw up around my graduation) but as I was receiving a separate award (more on that in a moment), they asked if I’d wait until the end of the line. That was fine with me; it was really nice to get to watch everyone do their walk and cheer for them.
My name was finally called and I got to walk across the stage. It was kind of a blur of sensory information – lights, noise, the ground felt like it was moving under my feet – but I made it across the stage. I didn’t take it in at the time but watching the video my Mum had taken and hearing the cheer for me… it makes me pretty emotional. It’s a bit like with the dress: I guess I’m just not used to being noticed. I’ve spent so much of my life feeling invisible that being seen – feeling seen, really seen – kind of takes my breath away. I don’t know how to describe it, if I’m honest. It just means a lot to me.
As I said, there wasn’t a certificate for me but each course gives an award to one student for ‘outstanding achievement.’ And given everything I’ve just said about feeling invisible, I was very emotional when I found out that I was being awarded it; I’m still processing it, to be honest. So, having crossed the stage, my head of course (who has also taught me on and off over the last seven years) had me stand to the side while she introduced the award. She said some really, really special things – particularly about my final project, which I absolutely poured every part of myself into – and presented me with the award. We took the picture and I slid back into the row with my coursemates. Everyone was so lovely about it and I’m just so grateful to all of them for making my Masters experience what it was; despite all of the hard stuff, I wouldn’t have had it any other way because of the people I met.
After the final few courses walked the stage and the last of the speeches, the ceremony concluded and we moved upstairs to the bar for the reception. It was somewhat surreal to be seeing and hugging and hanging out with people I’ve (pretty much) only seen online for the last eighteen months or so, surreal but wonderful. I saw so many of my friends; I got to meet their families; I caught up with a handful of my tutors, both from the MA and from my BA (some of them I haven’t seen properly since early 2020 at the latest since they didn’t teach on the MA and so I only ever saw them in the halls, something that obviously didn’t happen when we moved online). I had some really lovely, really special conversations that I will treasure. These last two years have been so weird – with such extremes of difficult and wonderful – and, with all of that still so fresh and still going on to varying degrees, I just felt so aware and so grateful for the good things, many of which are tied to my MA and therefore graduation.
I was absolutely exhausted and in a lot of pain afterwards. I could barely walk to the car. But all of the time on my feet, all the anxiety, the medication withdrawal, the emotion… it just hit me like a train. It took me days to recover – not an unusual experience – and, with my Granny’s Celebration of Life a few days after and the whole medication change, I don’t think I’ve fully processed it yet. It’s been such a weird, busy, emotional time and it’s just been hit after hit after hit. I’m doing my best to cope with it all but it’s a lot. But I did it. I finished my Masters. I am Lauren Alex Hooper, MA. Those two letters after my name mean so much to me because they represent how hard I worked to be here and I can’t be anything but proud of that.