Address on Conferment of Honorary Degree

Joanna McMinn
17 April 2010

Pro Vice-Chancellor, Director of The Open University in Ireland, members of the Senate, graduates, and guests

I am deeply appreciative of this distinguished Honorary Degree you have chosen to bestow on me today.

I am particularly proud to be associated with the Open University, and also indebted to it, for many reasons. Today, I will share three of the main ones:

Firstly, in 1981 the OU gave me my first paid job as a tutor and as a part time Assistant Staff Tutor. Back then, as a lone parent with two young daughters Anna and Keavy who were just starting school, this job supported me to work and care for my children and as I was to learn, it was the beginnings of my career in adult education. In the same spirit with which this door was opened for me, I discovered educational models with which to open that same door for others; it instilled within me a commitment to people who were otherwise excluded from the privilege of further education.

The second reason is this: in 1986 it was the OU that sent me into the Maze prison to teach a women’s studies course to political prisoners. These were men from whom I learned much about the opening and closing of doors. I often felt frightened walking into the prison to teach; doors clanked closed, and keys turned, behind me. While I had the freedom to come and go I was struck by the difference between my fear and the optimism of those imprisoned there. When I spoke about this one day to a prisoner he said to me, ‘Joanna, they may have closed the doors, but no one can ever imprison my imagination.’ Education was embraced as a freedom of the mind. That education provided by the Open University, and that freedom of mind, led to a reimagining of a political and social future for the north, and I believe there is, as yet, an unwritten history of the OU’s contribution to supporting that process during the period leading up to the Good Friday Agreement.

My teaching for the OU took me on a journey to understand this deep power of education to transform, so I could better understand how to promote social change.

So my third reason to feel indebted to the OU is that it was the OU who supported me to go to Milton Keynes to attend a workshop on doing a Doctorate. By then I was a mature student of 50. I doubted my competence to undertake a research degree. When I learned that 80% of PhD students drop out, I thought oh no, what is different about the remaining 20%? The answer was that those who succeed have 2 qualities; one they are truly interested in what they want to find out, and two, they have perseverance. That message carried me through the five years of my Doctoral research. I knew I had the potential to succeed in my goals, as do all of us here today as learners.

Looking back over my career, I can see how I have been changed by education. I have had the privilege to work behind closed doors, opening minds and having my own opened in return; I have become a changer in the world and I have been changed by it. Education has deepened my understanding of justice and equality. Through education I have gained confidence to believe in myself, and in the possibility of change.

Today, I am involved in a campaign to build stronger and more robust equality and human rights in Ireland at a time when they are under threat.

I know that many think human rights are only relevant for others far away and that many of us, including me, can feel helpless to put things to right. I reassure myself with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt who spoke of universal human rights

starting in small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of individual people; the neighborhood we live in, the school or college we attend; the factory, farm or office where we work. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted action to uphold them close to home we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

I want to end with these words of Marianne Williamson, made famous by Nelson Mandela:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.</blockquote>

I am proud to be honoured by the OU, and I accept this honorary doctorate gratefully and in the spirit that it endorses the faith it has placed in me over the years, both as a worker and as a student, and with gratitude for how it has shaped my life. Thank you.