Cloaked in tradition

The gown has faded and the corners of the mortarboard are frayed and bent. After 56 years, it’s fair to expect some wear and tear. But Marlena Litchfield likes the imperfections. To her, each loose thread tells a story and represents her family’s long association with UQ.

Litchfield (Bachelor of Arts ’16) became the fifth member of her family to wear the same academic cap and gown at UQ when she graduated in December last year.

She said wearing the family heirloom meant her graduation day had extra meaning.

“Looking at the photos, everyone looks so much younger and they’re all standing in front of the sandstone. It’s pretty special,” Litchfield said.

Litchfield’s great aunt, June MacDonald, was the first to wear the ensemble during her matriculation ceremony at UQ in March 1960, after completing her studies at St Mary’s College, Ipswich.

Marlena Litchfield with her great aunt June MacDonald.

Marlena Litchfield with her great aunt June MacDonald.

“I was heading off to Teachers’ College but I also wanted to start a degree,” MacDonald (Bachelor of Arts ’73, Master of Literary Studies ’93) told Contact.

“So my mother took me to Brisbane to buy the cap and gown from Pikes menswear store in Queen Street.

“When I graduated, the same gown was altered to become a graduation gown with a white hood, and it’s been worn in various ceremonies since.”

MacDonald’s brother-in-law and Litchfield’s grandfather, Maurice Keenan (Bachelor of Arts ’76) and his two sons, Mel Keenan (Bachelor of Arts (Honours) ’93) and Dr Thomas Keenan (Bachelor of Business Communication (Honours) ’02), each wore the cap and gown at their respective graduation ceremonies.

Recalling her days at UQ, MacDonald said she completed her undergraduate degree as a part-time student and mainly attended classes during the evening after spending the day at Kelvin Grove Teachers’ College.

“I travelled to Brisbane from Ipswich on the train,” MacDonald said.

“After a day at Teachers’ College, I would meet for coffee with a friend who was studying pharmacy at UQ.

“The Merlo family were building their coffee business in Brisbane and had opened Cafe Milano in Queen Street.

“We would roll in there with a few bob to spend. Then we would catch a bus to UQ, where we would have about three hours of class at night.

MacDonald said she benefited from “brilliant” lecturers and remembers attending an English 1 lecture from poet, environmentalist and Indigenous land rights campaigner Judith Wright.

“The lecture hall was full, and you could hear a pin drop because the students were so engaged with what they were learning."

MacDonald enjoyed a long career as a primary school teacher before retiring in 2004.

Litchfield said UQ had been a big part of her life – even as a child.

“We moved to Brisbane from Sydney when I was about five years old, and since then the University has been a staple in our family.

“Aunty June lives so close – just over the Eleanor Schonell Bridge. She would occasionally pick me up from school and we would come to the St Lucia campus for a coffee or to look at the gallery.

“Even when I was at primary school, I lived five minutes from UQ and I would see all the students walking past.

"Now I’ve been able to make a mark at an institution I’ve known since primary school.”

After beginning a science degree, Litchfield eventually found her feet studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in International Relations and French. She said she was planning to pursue a career in law, focusing on foreign policy.

“UQ certainly provided a holistic education. I made a lot of friends and played plenty of sport,” she said.

“I believe the internet has made studying a lot easier, compared to the days when Aunty June studied at UQ.

“The structure of studies and learning is so different. There’s much more focus on tutorials and participation, rather than the spoken lectures."

“I think university has become more about speaking to students, rather than at students, and all the resources are now easily accessible online.”