Getting the first degree

A Maclean’s reporter finally graduates from university

by Aaron Wherry

Wherry in his gown (Photo by Cole Garside)

From the 2013 Maclean’s University Rankings

If I could offer one piece of advice to my fellow graduates in the Class of 2012, it would be this: try to make your mother happy.

I do not intend to suggest this notion should dictate all day-to-day actions. But as a general principle, your mother’s happiness is a good guide. If your mother is pleased—assuming she is of a fairly reasonable mind—you are probably mostly okay. Or at least not in prison.

I have come to this conclusion as my mother’s regularly expressed desire to see her son graduate has compelled me to now finally graduate—a full decade after I last took a university course.

I am not exactly a dropout. I just sort of wandered away. I arrived at the University Formerly Known as the University of Western Ontario in the fall of 1998 (so long ago now that the institution no longer goes by the name I knew it as). I was an English major, destined to become a teacher or a journalist or an unemployed arts grad. A few days into my first year, I walked into the office of the student newspaper. My interest in academics subsequently declined in inverse proportion to the number of words I wrote for the Gazette. I did do enough to finish something like 3½ years’ worth of credits, but then I ran away to join the circus.

After taking my fourth year off to edit the Gazette, I landed a summer internship at the Globe and Mail. And near the end of that summer, I was offered a job at the National Post. For the 10 years that followed, I maintained a belief that at some point I would get those last few credits. And every few months my mother would wonder aloud if I was planning on graduating in the near future. Every few months for the last decade. (Over the same period of time, my sister, four years younger, managed to obtain two degrees.)

It goes without saying that my mother was right. I should have graduated. And not merely because, on average, university graduates earn more in salary (I will be demanding a raise immediately after my degree is hung on the wall at home).

The basic course of human life between the ages of 0 and 21 is marked by a standard set of goals: potty training, going to kindergarten, going to high school, getting a driver’s licence, graduating from high school, and, if you should so choose, graduating from university or college. It is at this last point that your parents can celebrate having raised a not entirely irresponsible human being. But even if my parents could be reasonably sure that I was a mostly functioning adult—and even if I was more or less fine with not officially graduating—there was no piece of paper with a university president’s signature, no pomp and circumstance, no official recognition of this achievement. And such moments matter. As much for you as for the people who get to watch you go through it.

Thankfully, through some happenstance this summer, it was confirmed that I had enough credits for a three-year degree. And so, after completing the necessary paperwork, I was cleared by Western to graduate. Last week I went through the hallowed motions of donning a long robe and walking across a stage in public to shake hands with some old guy. My wife let out a “woo!” as my name was announced (violating official applause rules). My dad barely resisted the urge to yell “finally!” And my mother, upon seeing me afterwards, cried.

So 14 years after I first arrived on campus, what lessons can I provide to my fellow graduates? First, if possible, graduate on time. If you should fail in this regard, see if there’s some way you can sneak out with a three-year degree. There is no shame in shortcuts—it demonstrates a commitment to efficiency. And whatever you do and however long it takes you to do it, try to make your mother proud. If your mother is happy, you are probably doing something right.




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Getting the first degree

  1. I am grateful that fate allowed me to read this article. As a graduate of a three year degree, I always felt like a bit of a failure that I was unable to complete the four year degree. Your perspective on this matter has brought me some peace. Also, my son who is studying in southern Alabama on a baseball scholarship ( very far away) Is not heeding my advice in a lot of areas. As I watch from afar, I feel helpless in getting him to find balance and focus while so far away. I will send this article to him in the hope that he will “listen to his mother”.

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