Convocation Fall 2023: Remarks


Mr. Chancellor, I present Alison Phipps.

Professor Phipps is Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies at the University of Glasgow and UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts.

Originally trained in languages and intercultural studies at the universities of Sheffield and Tübingen, Professor Phipps is internationally recognized in the academy and beyond for her work in language education, intercultural and refugee studies, ethics and social justice, and education for non-violence.

The titles of her groundbreaking interdisciplinary projects – “Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, Law and the State”; “Cultures of Sustainable and Inclusive Peace”; “The Ethics of Social Justice” – bear witness to her commitment to social justice and inclusion, as do her eight books, 60+ articles, and numerous presentations.

Outside the university, Professor Phipps advises governments and international bodies. She has been a board member of Right to Remain, was co-founder of the Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network, and serves as an Ambassador for the Scottish Refugee Council.

In recognition of Professor Phipps’ outstanding work, she has received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Edinburgh, and has been awarded the Minerva Medal of the Royal Philosophical Society.

She is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts and the Academy of Social Sciences, and was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for Services to Education and Intercultural and Interreligious Relations as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 2012.

Summarizing the impact of such an admirable educator is a challenge, considering Professor Phipps’ numerous contributions and honours. Her work as an activist scholar has addressed decolonization in language learning and other fields with honesty and openness and has fostered our awareness that there are ways of knowing other than our own.

Mr. Chancellor, in recognition of her outstanding accomplishments as a scholar and activist, particularly in the areas of peace and social justice education, I request that you bestow the title Doctor of Letters upon Professor Alison Phipps.


Formal Greetings

Mr. Chancellor, Dr Skidmore, thank you for these most generous words and to the University of Waterloo for this honour.

Good morning to you all. Congratulations to you the Class of 2023 on your graduation, and to your families, friends, and faculty for their part in this moment, time, and place.

I begin by acknowledging that I speak as an honoured guest at the University of Waterloo and that my words are spoken on Haldimand Tract, land that was granted to the Haudenosaunee of the Six Nations of the Grand River, on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples.

I recognize and pay respect to peoples of Turtle Island and continue to commit to working with you and alongside indigenous peoples, and those forced internally and internationally from their lands, and to do so with the guidance of elders, and of international treaties.

I bring my greetings from the Land of Scotland, the Clyde River, and the Campsie Fells , the Rowan tree at my door, and from my own family – Eritrean and displaced, living in refuge across the world.

Commencement Speech

Once upon a time - age 15 I was hiking in the Schwäbische Alb, Germany, and I got Lost.

Because I got lost, I missed a performance of Naturtheater – open air theatre - in the village of Hayingen. And because I got lost, I ended up a few years later, in a bone-corseted velvet gown, in a thunderstorm, on a stage in front of around 2000 people, as part of my PhD studying the self-same theatre in Hayingen.

Stand still. (says the poet David Wagoner)

The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost.[1]

The communities of the Schwäbische Alb, where I lived, were made up of over a third refugees, displaced after World War 2. Because I got lost the power of the arts, and intercultural practice became the strong thread of my studies. I discovered the spiritual and ritual ability of performances in the open air, to heal and allow for the making together of new homes, in new places, at the invitation of indigenous peoples. This became a refreshing stream of the potency of peace in my life.

Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

When I was in my early career I got lost again. In response to an appeal for linguists I began visiting those held in the immigration removal centre an hour from my home with those facing deportation. I’m a professional linguist but I was never more humbled than when I could not speak the languages of those I was visiting.

The detainees, however, revelled in my lostness, teaching me many phrases in their own languages. Here was a Professor of Languages who had never even heard of theirs. Their dignity was restored for a short moment, and we all were made of laughter.

Through this I widened my work and placed those seeking refuge at the heart. In 2009 a young unaccompanied minor from Eritrea turned up on our doorstep, became our foster daughter and was then placed in the same detention centre for deportation. I was lost.

I had no idea how to prevent her removal. Or how to find her family, who were lost. But here I am 15 years later, part of a wide Eritrean diasporic family of found mothers, fathers, and grandparents and with 2 grandchildren of my own.

The forest breathes.


It answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

I’m here with you today because I have been lost many times.

All my best moments in life and in my work have come because I was lost. Because I commenced by being lost. Because I didn’t have answers. Because I was aware that the easy, trite, memable norms that I had been fed were inadequate; that the words which I turned to use to find a way were not strong enough to hold the hell that my people, my family, or my work must endure, as refugees. I am part of a long ancestry of providers of refuge and hospitality, of makers of spiritual joy and food and music and abundance.

I am often at a loss for words strong enough to hold and to heal, to describe and to understand the situation we find ourselves in countries so security conscious that they have forgotten that hospitality, generosity, forgiveness, and restoration, are the best security systems we have.

The United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s own preamble, to which my academic chair is bound says:

“If wars are made in the minds of people, then it is in the minds of people that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

Today these words have become like familiar constellations of stars, giving directions.  I seek to teach and lead in ways which lament our losses and lostness when faced with a politics of death, but without metabolising hate for perpetrators, without becoming lost to what we hate.

No two trees are the same to Raven.No two branches are the same to Wren.

 If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost.

Stand still.

The forest knows

Where you are.

You must let it find you.

My work has taken me to many difficult times and places. Yours will too, I guarantee. Through it I have come to realise I strive for everyone to enjoy the right to be ordinary, to be of family, to have friendship, to sit and eat together, to sing and mourn and argue, and make and bake, and make up, and tell stories of getting lost. And being found, surprisingly.

Come away, Come away in, Come away, Come away in

The storm it is rising but we’ll hold back the wind

Come away, Come away in.[2]

Because my work is always part of a collective endeavour, I dedicate this Honorary Doctorate of Letters to my friend, colleague and beloved collaborator of 14 years, Dr Nazmi Al Masri, Applied Linguist, Refugee, Peace-Maker.

May you discover for yourselves, as I have done through Nazmi, that the myth of scarcity and security built on fear will never make you safe or bring you joy. That you can be a shelter to yourself and others, through no extraordinary power, even when lost. That the arts and humanities offer guides of depth and beauty and wisdom into hospitality and peace. And that when you are lost you have the chance for life to find you, abundantly.

Thank you.


Thank you, Dr. Phipps, for your inspiring address.

Good morning, everyone, my name is Sheila Ager and I am proud to serve as your Dean for the Faculty of Arts. On behalf of our Faculty, I want to wish you all sincere congratulations on your graduation day! This day should be celebrated, by you and your loved ones, together with your classmates and the professors and staff who navigated parts of this road with you. I know it wasn’t an easy road to get here, but here you are!

Whether today’s ceremony marks your first degree, or your second, or your third, you’ve made a success of it, and the Faculty of Arts is honoured to have played a part in your achievement.

I’d like to reflect for a moment on the past year in particular, globally and right here on campus: I believe events over the past weeks and months serve as a reminder to us all of how desperately our world needs human understanding. If knowledge is power, then greater knowledge of ourselves and the diversity of those around us should give us the strength and capacity to work for a more just and inclusive world. The Faculty of Arts is committed to a vision and a conviction that all peoples are worthy of respect, empathy, and socio-economic wellbeing.

For those of you graduating today, whether your passion is exploring the human mind, uncovering the past, advancing social justice, innovating business, unlocking creativity, or tackling global challenges, you are all poised to become alumni of the Faculty of Arts, and that means that you are thoughtful, imaginative, and adaptable, and that you possess the kind of mind and the kind of problem-solving skills that will rise to challenges.

It’s our mission in Arts to help prepare you for life and for work with values that emphasize the welfare of individuals, communities, and the environments in which we live. [PAUSE] You all have the potential to make a positive difference in this culturally diverse and technologically driven world.

And you haven’t only been engaging with academics these past few years – you’ve been living life, and indeed you’ve been experiencing some of recent history’s biggest changes. You’ve learned from these experiences too, and these can actually be the most important lessons to take away with you.  Couple these experiences and the lessons you have gained from your time at UW – and go forward with the confidence in knowing you can handle what comes next.

Show the world what you can do – you have what it takes to achieve your dreams and make our world a better place.

Thank you.

PAUSE and SMILE and return to throne chair