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Supergrans of cap and gown gear up for graduation

30 March 2023

The GWC team will be responsible for fitting out over 1100 students graduating from the University of Canterbury (UC) at Christchurch Arena next week.


\L-R GWC Regalia Hire Business Manager Sarah McBurney with former manager, Jean Sharfe.

Dubbed the “supergrans of regalia”, they’re the women making sure thousands of Canterbury students each year wear their academic gown, hood and trencher with confidence when they cross the stage to accept their degree.  

The volunteers in the GWC Regalia Hire team are responsible for fitting out over 1100 graduates who will attend three Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury graduation celebration events at Christchurch Arena next week. 

The charitable organisation, which has been around for close to a century, also supplies regalia for other tertiary graduations and high school prizegiving ceremonies from Timaru to Nelson and the West Coast, as well as local Christchurch schools. 

GWC Regalia Hire Business Manager Sarah McBurney, who owned a bridal boutique before switching from white gowns to black in 2018, calls her team of about a dozen volunteers – all aged from their mid-60s to their 80s, the “supergrans of regalia”. 

One of them, Kay Holyoake, has been volunteering for GWC Regalia Hire since 1980 and is now in her early 80s. She still enjoys the upbeat, celebratory mood of graduation.  

“Yes, they’re really hard work, but I love meeting the students and they’re all so excited and happy about graduating. When we see them afterwards, they’ll say, ‘It was fabulous, I had a ball’.” 

However, she also remembers being in the old GWC Regalia Hire headquarters in the basement of the Christchurch Arts Centre during the February 2011 earthquake, grabbing handbags and retrieving the trust’s cash during the chaos that followed.  

New volunteer Dr Jan Wikaira, who graduated with a Master of Māori and Indigenous Studies degree a few years ago, remembers being “made to feel special” by the GWC staff when she picked up her graduation gown. She says that’s how they aim to treat all students: “The attitude is that nothing is a problem, and everything can be sorted out.” 

Dr Wikaira retired from the UC Faculty of Science last year and is looking forward to volunteering at her first graduation next week. She was drawn in by the good company and team atmosphere with the other volunteers. 

McBurney has modernised the charity’s systems and is impressed with how quickly the volunteers adapted to the changes. 

“I’m in awe of the way they’ve allowed me to update our systems. When I started it was cheques and cash. Now we’ve introduced online ordering and payment and electronic tracking of all our regalia. I’ve given it more of a business focus and they’ve adapted really well,” she says. 

Based at the University of Canterbury’s Dovedale campus, the team manages 10,000 items – including gowns, hoods in various colours and hats – which need to be cleaned, ironed and maintained. Hundreds of gowns are drycleaned each week and need to be checked and sorted into sizes. Each set of regalia, including a hat, hood and gown, is worth about $1000. 

The organisation is getting busier as more students want to graduate in person and more events are held each year, so McBurney is hoping to attract new volunteers to help. 

“It can be really full on, during graduation days we’re open for ten or 11 hours a day, but I’m really proud of how everything comes together, and the process is usually very smooth. At the previous University of Canterbury graduations, which involved thousands of graduates last year, everything was returned on time.”  

Former GWC Regalia Hire Manager Jean Sharfe, who remains a committed volunteer, says it’s “a great group of people” to work with many of them are retired teachers or interested in education. 

She says Graduate Women Canterbury (GWC) is a trust that evolved from the Canterbury Branch of the New Zealand Federation of University Women, which was formed in the 1920s to support female students and graduates socially and professionally at a time when they were a minority. The Trust is now responsible for overseeing GWC Regalia Hire as a non-profit organisation.  

Funds from regalia hire are distributed by the Trust to students enrolled at Canterbury tertiary institutions, such as University of Canterbury, Lincoln University, Ara Institute of Canterbury, through grants, awards and scholarships.

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