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Let’s Graduate Like it’s 1899

By Fakhriya M. Suleiman, MA Global Media and Postnational Communication

I was amongst those who graduated from university in 2020. After three (very quick years) I had finally completed my Bachelor’s degree in Study of Religions.

As part of those who made it out the other end successfully, degree in hand, even amidst all the Covid pallaver, I happily celebrated my achievement in a socially distant manner at home with a well deserved celebratory pizza.

My delight when I received my graduate’s certificate in the mail soon turned to shock horror. I noticed, even though it said in large red letters on the envelope ‘PLEASE DO NOT BEND’, that somewhere during transit it had in fact been bent. But it was nothing compared to the conversations I had seen circulating around SOASian Facebook.

A graduate student of Near and Middle Eastern Studies posted a picture of their certificate.

According to the certificate, their award was issued ‘30 December 1899.’

‘Graduating in the 19th century – I wonder what that would have looked like…’

I’m sure it was just a typo mishap. But still, graduating in the 19th century – I wonder what that would have looked like…


The year is 1899. As SOAS was not yet to be established until 1916 (or should I say SOS – back then, it was only the School of Oriental Studies), I most likely would have been a student of UCL. Only 21 years prior, in 1878, was UCL made the first British university allowed to award degrees to women.

I like to think I would have received a Gilchrist Scholarship. In 1879 trustees of John Borthwick Gilchrist’s Educational Trust began giving UCL ‘annually sums, varying in amount, for the purposes of the Gilchrist Studentships and Scholarships.’ Following women being allowed to study at university level in Britain, the trust began to offer scholarship to women pursuing higher education. Scholarships of £40 (somewhere around the region of £900 today) were offered per year of study.

If I had the chance to study a different degree in the year 1899, I would choose a language. French literature, for example, enjoyed much success in the 19th century. René ‘Sully’ Prudhomme’s collection of poems in ‘Stances et Poèmes’ gained critical acclaim. Therein, he penned under the title Pensée Perdue (lost thought):

Elle est si douce, la pensée, 

Qu’il faut, pour en sentir l’attrait, 

D’une vision commencée 

S’éveiller tout à coup distrait.

Prudhomme was saying that thinking, dreaming awake, letting your thoughts wander, is such a nice thing to do that one tends to get carried away and not even realise it. Only when one awakes from such a state do they then realise how nice it is to let one’s mind run free.

And now, back to the future. The year is 2021. I’m currently studying a Master’s in Global Media and Postnational Communication – remotely, during the era of Covid (what joy).

Alas, I had no graduation ceremony for my Bachelor’s degree due to covid restrictions, nor was I able to recount for you all the ceremony for my Bachelor’s in French from 1899. The time machine I rented stopped working just before the ceremony was about to start (what luck, am I right?).

Still, here’s hoping for better days ahead in 2021.

And keep an eye out – who knows what year 2021 students will be graduating, according to SOAS. 

Photo caption: It was not until 1878 that women were allowed to study at university level in the United Kingdom. (Credit: University of London Archives)

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