The women behind the trenchers
The women behind the trenchers
As part of Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s 125th anniversary celebrations, we are shining a light on those who have shaped our history. The women of Graduate Women Wellington are an essential part of our Graduation celebrations—but they have also played a crucial role in supporting women to pursue tertiary education throughout our history.
If you’ve ever been involved in a Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington Graduation, you’ll know paying a visit to the academic dress hire office to pick up your academic dress is one of the most exciting parts of the process.
But you may not know that the academic dress hire service, who run the office, are there for more than just the weeks leading up to Graduation—in fact, they work year-round to support causes related to women’s education.
The academic dress hire service is run by members of Graduate Women Wellington (GWW), which is the local branch of Graduate Women New Zealand. Graduate Women New Zealand is part of Graduate Women International, an organisation that advocates for women’s education around the world. The academic dress hire service team is made up of a mix of staff and volunteers, most of whom are alumni of Te Herenga Waka.
Three of the key team members are manager Catherine Dunning, academic dress convener Rae Duff, and finance manager Michelle O’Donnell. They all have a long association with Graduate Women Wellington, and they all agree that seeing the impact their work has on the lives of women is the most meaningful part of their work.
GWW was established in 1920, and it has been involved in academic dress hire at the University since the end of World War II. The Chancellor at the time expressed an interest in improving the dignity of graduation ceremonies by raising the standard of academic dress, and his wife, who was a member of GWW, recruited other members to the cause. The members borrowed sets of academic dress from local teachers, who at that time wore academic dress in the classroom, and then hired them out to graduands for 10 shillings.
After five years of running academic dress hire at the University, GWW had gathered enough money to start providing scholarships for women pursuing education. The academic dress hire business soon became a major fundraiser for GWW, and has gone on to fund countless scholarships and fellowships for women at all stages of their tertiary education journey—including the First in Family Scholarship, which provides funding for three years for women who are the first in their family to attend University.
The business has grown in other ways too—at first, all the academic dress required fit easily into a single suitcase. The branch now holds 3,000 sets of academic dress, so the method of storage has had to expand somewhat—they are currently housed in the Murphy building, but alumni from earlier years may remember their premises in the Student Union building, above the University crèche in Salamanca Road, and in the Z Shed.
Catherine, Rae, and Michelle say they are extremely lucky to be located on campus, because it allows them to work seamlessly with the University staff who run Graduation—although it does create the misconception that they are part of the University itself, rather than members of a separate organisation.
Catherine notes there can be challenges finding material for the hoods and stoles in the correct colour: “If a colour isn’t fashionable that year, nobody is going to produce it.” The team often finds themselves scouring fabric shops and emporiums to find material in the right colour. They then send the material out to professional sewers—although the hoods were created by GWW members at first, demand soon far outstripped what was possible for its members to create.
The academic dress hire service does not just provide academic dress for graduands of the University—in fact, they provide academic dress for polytechnic graduations, local school prize-givings, and even graduations in prison. They were recently contacted by workers at Rimutaka Prison, who were holding a graduation ceremony for inmates who had completed their course of study. They thought it was such a good cause in support of education they decided to waive the usual hire fees.
GWW also contributes to a range of other educational causes, including supporting teen parents in schools. Catherine notes they see many of them go on to rise through the ranks of tertiary education.
“You could actually get quite emotional about what they go on to achieve,” she says. “To me, personally, that makes the job worthwhile.”
The academic dress service team keenly felt the disappointment of past Graduations being cancelled due to pandemic restrictions, and are as excited as the rest of the University community to see them return this week. They are particularly excited about the parade. Although Graduation week is so busy that attending it is out of the question, they have the livestream of the ceremonies playing while they’re in the office.
Despite the hard work, it’s all worth it when they see how excited the graduands are. Catherine says: “In the last five minutes before the cut-off to hand their gear in, they’re still out there near the Hunter building taking photographs.
“You get job satisfaction when you see a family out there on campus who’s just proud as punch that their child has graduated.”
Historical information courtesy of Rae Duff.
Header image: Left to right, Michelle O’Donnell, Rae Duff, and Catherine Dunning.