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Sue Ball: A graduation ceremony is only the beginning for most students

The Open University's season of 29 awards ceremonies across the UK and in Dublin, Paris and Singapore will come to an end on 6 October at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Spotting the OU graduate isn't obvious as excited family groups rush through the doors. It's only at "robing", when the academic gown (Bachelors, Masters or Doctorate ) slides over the shoulders, that the graduate among each group emerges. Open University graduates do not have age in common. But what they do have is success.

OU life does not end with speeches and strawberry teas. A team from the Open University Alumni Relations Office supported by a group of enthusiastic graduate alumni volunteers will have talked with more than 3,500 graduates and their families of the total of 7,800 who attended ceremonies this year.

As a university which communicates primarily "at a distance" in a supported open learning environment, these events are a tangible expression of the Open University community. We met a young man in Belfast who started studying at 17 and was graduating at 24; a grandmother aged 78 in London receiving a Masters degree, having been forced to leave school at 13 because her father didn't believe girls should be educated; a 36-year-old Royal Naval Lieutenant Commander; a 46-year-old divorced mother of three training as a family mediator; a vicar and father of grown sons; and a 23-year-old graduating without the debts facing most of her friends.

Graduation offers the start of a new relationship with the university which lasts a lifetime. Following its key principle of openness the OU provides free membership to all graduates and all former students who have successfully completed an OU course. That's "two million and counting"! All are valued members of a vibrant worldwide learning community.

The Alumni Association provides regular communications (electronic and print), access to careers services and information resources, opportunities to meet OU academics and other alumni and join clubs and societies as well as specialist groups including those for law and MBAs. The Alumni Association's website at www.openlink.org offers a news service, chatroom discussions and opinion polls as well as details of services to alumni.

We are particularly proud of the relationship with The Independent newspaper, offering a dedicated supplement for alumni each month for over four years.

We recognise that alumni make a vital contribution to the university by promoting study, becoming volunteers offering valuable time and skills (more than 12,000 are part of the OU Alumni Volunteer Programme) and supporting us financially with a donation or legacy. The university also benefits from students, alumni and staff who take out and use a variety of member benefits and quality services, ranging from an OU credit card to an online wineshop.

"Once an OU student, always an OU student" is how many of those we meet describe themselves. The evidence is in the large numbers of alumni each year who opt to return to study. Whichever way you choose to maintain your link with the Open University community, the Alumni Association is there for you. Why not join us?

Sue Ball is Director, Alumni Relations