Spring convocation: Like mother like son

(Edmonton) It’s not uncommon for parents to attend their child’s convocation. However, Shyamala Nagendran’s participation in her son Jayan’s big day is a little more involved.

She followed him across the stage.

In what is likely a first for the University of Alberta and quite possibly in Canada, mother and son were awarded their PhDs in medicine together at this morning’s ceremonies; these two designations round out a total of 11 degrees from the University of Alberta between all four members of the Nagendran family.

Shyamala, who started her academic career at the U of A 30 years ago in the Department of Computing Science, says she feels honoured to be able to walk across the stage with one of her sons. When she began her degree, son Jayan was four years old and younger son Jeevan was still an infant. At that time, she says, the concept of mothers continuing post-secondary studies was still foreign.

“Computing science, in those days, was a tough grind,” she said. “You could think of me as one of those early women who went back to study after having children.”

As for the stroll across the stage for this highest academic honour, Shyamala’s special moment is made more special by the fact that she will follow her son in the order of degree recipients. Jayan, who is a cardiac specialist, completed his doctoral requirements in experimental medicine two years ago but deferred his convocation in order to share the occasion with his mother. Son Jeevan, also enrolled in a PhD program in cardiac surgery, will convocate in three years. While a trifecta of doctoral recipients would have been her ultimate plan, her children convinced her that she needed to accept her moment now.

“It is my proudest moment in life to cross the stage with one of my sons,” said Shyamala. “All three of us would have been on stage at the same time, but my youngest son said, ‘no, mom, it’s time. Go go go!’”

The goal of achieving her doctorate has been with her since her teens, says Shyamala, and that the support of her husband and parents was paramount in her reaching her goals, she is reticent to take credit for setting an example for her own children. Shyamala holds firm to the notion that neither she nor her husband, Jay (who sits on the university’s board of governors), ever had to motivate their children academically. In many ways, she says, she took inspiration from them.

However, Jayan is quick to dispel any notion that their mother was anything less than a role model for he and his brother’s dreams and passions. He says his mother’s attitude towards learning was one of the reasons he became a heart surgeon and then moved on to pursue his PhD in experimental medicine.

“It’s a very proud moment for me to be able to convocate from my PhD alongside my mother,” said Jayan. “She’s been the inspiration for most of my endeavours in life, especially those professional and academic.”