Tuesday 31st May 2011 was an incredibly special day for me. I finally graduated from my PhD and became Dr Lesley Birch! Not only was it one of the most exciting days of my life, it was all the more special because I got to share it with family and friends.
A couple of weeks earlier, overwhelmed by work, attending graduation felt like another thing to be squeezed into an already busy week and meant taking the day off. As it drew closer though, and I started to think about how I wanted to celebrate this occasion, I realised that it was important to stop and enjoy the process. I had to think about who had been important on my journey and invite them to attend or at least celebrate afterwards. A couple of my close friends who were incredibly supportive live, unfortunately for me, half a world away. Having them attend was impossible and I missed them on the day. However, an email to my oldest & dearest friend Cheryl asking if she would like to attend (even though it meant flying from interstate) got the best response – “You couldn’t keep me away, I’ve already booked my ticket.” I couldn’t stop smiling as I contacted others – Vanessa had already booked the day off work, as had Deb. My parents had had it on their calendar since I’d told them which date it was going to be held. Unfortunately my sister couldn’t get time off work (& my nephew had the flu so she had other things to contend with). Delwyn & Nik couldn’t get time off either. Jo’s reason was original – she had a photo shoot with the mayor for her second book launch. An exciting time for her and I’m looking forward to that this weekend. I had been disappointed to find out that Michelle was unable to attend because she couldn’t get the work roster changed – until a phone call on the Sunday before when she found out the roster had been changed, but the person who changed it hadn’t thought to tell her. (smart, huh?) Luckily I could get a ticket for her on the day so she quickly booked a ticket to Melbourne and I arranged for her to meet Cheryl at the airport.
As it got closer, I became more and more excited…I described it on Facebook as better than every birthday and Christmas rolled into one. It’s hard to describe the feeling…a sense that one journey was at an end and I was about to reap the reward of ten years of hard work. A journey that tested me in ways I never imagined, one in which I rose to the challenge. Sometimes alone, sometimes with the support of friends who fed me, nurtured my soul, encouraged me and also pushed me to face up to facts at difficult times. I needed both the encouragement and nurturing as well as the occasional nudge back to the reality that it was me that had to finish writing this thesis.
By Monday night the house was clean, stocked with food and champagne, and I was smiling non-stop. I had stood in Dan Murphys (a liquor shop for my non-Australian readers) and gleefully bought two bottles of Moet & Chandon champagne. A luxury I have never purchased for myself. I dragged myself away from counting down the hours on Facebook and to bed close to one am.
The morning brought two text messages – both friends were delayed. I quickly showered and dressed, made up the spare bed and stripped mine. I decided to head to the airport to pick up Michelle as Cheryl’s plane had been delayed by an hour. Michelle had missed her flight but managed to get on the next one. I picked up Shelly and talked all the way home about her recent wedding and my big day. Home for a coffee and then we headed to the hairdressers. I texted Cheryl the address so she could meet us there. My lovely hairdresser, Dave, made me coffee and worked his magic while I sat and enjoyed the pampering. Cheryl arrived and caught up with Michelle. I can’t remember the last time they had seen each other but it wouldn’t have been in the last ten years or so.
Now looking considerably more gorgeous, we went home and I put some make-up on. We headed out, towards Flemington racecourse members stand (via the McDonalds drive through so Cheryl & Michelle could get something to eat). We eventually found it (only one illegal U-turn necessary) and made our way to the car park. I found the special room for gowning of the PhD graduates and Cheryl & Michelle started taking photos. It felt strange to finally put the red gown and blue mantle on…stranger still to get the floppy hat put in place. I look slightly nervous in the first few photos. Trying to get used to the weight of the robe and keeping the hat in place, we made our way back to the entrance to wait for Deb & Vanessa as well as my parents. Deb & Vanessa arrived first and we took more photos, then I disappeared off to the book stall on the fourth floor to get Michelle’s ticket (facing my fear of heights and hatred of escalators where you can see down the sides for more than one storey).
Back downstairs I said I was going to wait outside to see if I could spot my parents. It was getting crowded by this time. Michelle came with me to take a couple of photos out the front of the Members Grandstand. My nerves were growing – I could feel butterflies in my stomach. The story Mum told me was that just before they saw me, Dad had said to her “How will we recognise Lesley?” as there were a lot of graduates in black gowns and mortar boards. Mum told him I’d be wearing red, which he obviously didn’t realise. Just as they finished this conversation, I had spotted them and was walking very quickly over to them.
I have to say that the look on their faces was worth every difficult moment that I faced and overcame. It was all worth it.
Back inside I headed off to the briefing while Mum & Dad caught up with Cheryl, Michelle, Deb & Vanessa. We did a rehearsal of how we had to walk up onto the stage and sit down (a lot of the audience were already seated). That’s when the nerves kicked in. I was to be at the front of the two columns of people walking in. The rehearsal and briefing went well (at least I was going to be the second person presented) and we retreated back to the room where everyone was congregating.
Too soon we had to go out, butterflies squirming. It all went without a hitch…and sitting there for an hour while all the undergraduates and masters degrees were conferred gave me time to settle my nerves. My boss was reading the citations – that made it extra special. Soon it was time and I was a lot more nervous that I thought I would be. The citations are only 60 words but it felt like eternity. I was standing on the side of the stage, literally shaking while she read (my friends said it was visible from where they were). I was looking across at the Chancellor and one of the Pro Vice Chancellors who I have know my whole time at the university. He smiled at me and that kept me focused.
It meant more than I can put into words to hear Helen say “Chancellor, I present to you Dr Lesley Birch.” and to walk over, doff my hat and receive my degree. Over ten years hard work paid off. (Of course this daft Dr forgot to turn around with the Chancellor for the official photo but we waylaid him and the Vice Chancellor after for another one).
Afterwards is a blur of introducing my parents and friends to people, being congratulated by lots of people and photos. All too soon I went to take the gown back and return to normality. You couldn’t get the smile off my face though. We all headed back to my place for champagne, pizza, an amazing cake (courtesy of the very talented Vanessa) and a good catch-up and celebration. I got the chance to toast and thank my family and friends. Without them it wouldn’t have been possible!
I look forward to seeing the people who couldn’t be there and thank them and celebrate more. Interestingly, I didn’t think it would make a difference to how I felt about myself. After all, it had officially been classified as passed a month ago and this was just the icing on the cake formal part of the process. The next day I realised just how much it made a difference. I know, deep inside, that I made it. I achieved what I set out to do. I hold myself differently. The essence of who I am is the same, but I have an inner knowing. I really can do whatever it takes to achieve my dreams!