Fifty years on, Brig talks to Stirling’s first ever graduate

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Hazel Cairns
Hazel Cairns receives her certificate from Lord Robbins in 1968. Credit: The University of Stirling: Beginnings and Today by R.G. Bomont

On December 10 1968, Hazel Cairns took a seat beside five of her fellow graduands in what is now the Pathfoot Building’s coffee lounge. The group was positioned to the left of the stage, and in front of a small live band. The windows beside them provided a spectacular view over the sparse, undeveloped Airthrey Estate, towards Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument.

Standing at a podium on the stage, Lord Robbins, the first Chancellor of the University of Stirling, officially began the institution’s first ever graduation ceremony.

“It was a really exciting day, and a real landmark day for the university, but also, it was a modest ceremony,” says Hazel. “Obviously the staff, and us as graduands and our relatives and friends – I think we were able to bring two or three each – that’s all who were there, and the dignitaries of course. But, still quite nerve-wrecking.”

While Hazel’s surname was actually second alphabetically among the graduands, the person in first place was graduating in absentia. This meant that when the ceremony began, she was the first to stand up, cross the stage, and receive her certificate from Lord Robbins, becoming part of university history as Stirling’s first graduate.

Since the university had only been founded the year before (receiving its royal charter on December 27 1967), no undergraduates had yet finished their degrees, and so the only participants in the 1968 ceremony were Master’s students. The fact that there were only six of them in total – three each from the two MSc courses on offer – gave the proceedings quite an intimate atmosphere.

“Although we went through all the formalities and all of the processes of graduation, we followed as the mace was carried in, the ceremony declared open, and the speeches and so on, all that formality was there, but yet it was quite intimate.

“We all went off and had lunch afterwards – you know, it was not just going off with your family for your celebration, all of us from Lord Robbins down went and had a nice lunch.”

Originally from Northern Ireland, Hazel (now Hazel Somerville) completed her undergraduate degree at Queen’s University Belfast before moving on to do her Master’s at Stirling in 1967. She was enticed by an innovative course in Mathematical Psychology that was being run by Professor Peter McEwen and Michael Moore, formerly lecturers at QUB.

In putting together her project for this course, investigating a form of gambling behaviour from a mathematical perpective, she made extensive use of the university’s small pool of undergraduates. The 150-or-so students were “so overused” due to the constant needs of her and her two fellow Master’s students, she says, but this tiny community was what she loved most about Stirling.

“Obviously, everybody knew everybody.

“We were a very close-knit community, and very much interacting one with another. There were none of the formal divides between the staff and the students. We were just one big happy community, and certainly at the post-graduate level.”

Living in Dunblane, Hazel says that she would get lifts into campus from her course leader most days. Even when she was standing at the bus stop, somebody would usually come past in a car and give her a lift. It was this close, welcoming community – a community where you would go out for lunch with the university chancellor after graduation – that kept her coming back to Stirling for many years after she left.

After her graduation, Hazel moved to teach at a college in Victoria, Canada, before returning to Scotland to lecture in mathematics, statistics, and psychology in Glasgow and Paisley, obtaining a PhD along the way. She developed a passion for lifelong learning and continuing education, and worked as a senior research fellow for widening participation at the University of Paisley (now the University of the West of Scotland) from the late nineties into the early 2000s.

Through all that time, she kept in touch with the friends she had made during her time at Stirling – both former students and staff. Hazel, now 73, recently got an opportunity to explore the campus, and see how it had grown beyond the original Pathfoot building.

“It was really, really enjoyable. That’s something I hadn’t done. Obviously, it’s just beyond recognition, it’s been developed, but it’s still really sensitively developed. It’s still a beautiful campus. Around the loch, you can get away from the buildings. There’s a lot of greenery, and trees, and peace and quiet there, despite how busy the campus generally is. So, I’m quite impressed with the way it’s been developed. Very impressed.”

It’s not just the campus that has changed. This week, the university’s class of 2018 will graduate, fifty years after the inaugural class of 1968. And there won’t just be six students receiving their degrees: a total of 1,540 students will be attending four ceremonies spread over two days, with a further 619 graduating in absentia.

So, does the university’s first graduate have any advice for the next 2,159?

“Follow your dreams, take what chances you get. If an opportunity comes up, and you get the chance to do something you want to do, don’t be holding back. Don’t be afraid. And just keep learning.

“I’ve kept learning all my life. It’s not a matter of, you leave school, you go to university, you leave university, and that’s you and learning finished. I think you need to keep learning. Lifelong learning, I think, is extremely important, in terms of keeping you active and keeping you able to take opportunities. And for your enjoyment – I mean, I enjoy learning. Even at this ancient age, I still like learning!”

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