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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

UF graduates attend first in-person commencement ceremonies since 2019

The class of 2021 and class of 2020 both celebrated their graduation from UF this month

UF graduates stand and sing along to Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" during the 2021 graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 1, 2021. (Photo by Makiya Seminera)
UF graduates stand and sing along to Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" during the 2021 graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 1, 2021. (Photo by Makiya Seminera)

When Madisun Murphy was 9 years old, her parents took her to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to watch UF play against the University of Kentucky. The game ended with a victory for the Florida Gators, 48-14, with the stands going wild. In awe of the bright colors and enthusiastic crowd, Murphy knew she wanted to one day attend a game as a UF student. 

Eleven years later, Murphy walked across the stage of the O’Connell Center to receive her bachelor’s of science in psychology. 

"I don't think it really hit me yet," Murphy said. "But then when we turned our tassels, that's when it became real."

From April 29 to May 3, around 10,000 students registered to graduate in the Spring 2021 graduation ceremonies — the first in-person graduation ceremonies since since December 2019. Of the 10,000 students registered, about 3,000 were graduates from spring, summer and fall of 2020 who returned to UF’s campus to attend in-person commencement ceremonies the following weekend, UF spokesperson Cynthia Roldan wrote in an email. 

Due to climbing cases of COVID-19 and the uncertainty regarding vaccine rollout in 2020, UF opted to host a virtual graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 at the time students completed their degrees. This left many 2020 graduates disappointed in the indefinite postponement of an in-person graduation. 

However, in February, UF announced Spring 2021 graduation ceremonies and 2020 make-up graduation ceremonies would be held in-person at the O’Connell Center.

In the months leading up to the Spring 2021 commencement ceremonies, some graduates were not confident that UF would follow through. 

Among them was Kayla Ratnasamy, a 22-year-old UF political science senior, who was happy UF was able to host a smooth and efficient in-person ceremony while still abiding by CDC guidelines.

“I had a lot of doubts that UF was going to hold in-person ceremonies,” Ratnasamy said. “I’m just really grateful that UF was able to do this during a pandemic.”

Both the 2021 and make-up 2020 graduation ceremonies were heavily modified to follow UF Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health and safety protocols. This included precautions such as masks and social distancing requirements in the O’Connell Center and an invite limitation of two guests per graduate to adhere to its 20% seating capacity limit. Graduation watch parties were also modified to COVID-19 safety protocols. 

During the ceremony, graduates were allowed to remove their masks for stage photos and videos. Handshakes between graduates and faculty on stage were not permitted. 

Safety measures like temperature checks for attendees were not implemented prior to the commencement ceremonies. Additionally, only commencement faculty and staff were required to undergo COVID-19 screening to be cleared for campus.

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“I felt very safe,” Sidharth Sharma, a 21-year-old UF chemistry junior, said. “They had really good protocols to keep everyone six feet apart with masks.” 

While some students appreciated the safety measures provided by the COVID-19 regulations in place, others felt the seating capacity in the O’Connell Center was too limited. 

"There was way too much space," Murphy said. "It was just kind of a bummer because I had four additional people that were there, but had to sit in the stadium."

In an email, Roldan wrote that the ceremonies averaged 550 students per class of 2021 ceremony and 300 graduates per 2020 make-up ceremony.  

The COVID-19 protocols implemented not only kept the ceremony safe but quiet as well. The vastly empty O’Connell Center made it difficult for attendees to imitate the boisterous crowds present at previous in-person graduations, resulting in lone cheers absorbed by empty seats. 

In addition to the drastically reduced number of attendees compared to a pre-pandemic ceremony, graduates and their families were encouraged to exit the building after crossing the stage to avoid any unnecessary crowding.

Chad DeRigo, 46-year-old father of UF class of 2021 graduate Hailey DeRigo, had taken note of the comparatively low energy during the 2021 graduation ceremonies.

"I would say maybe the biggest downfall to something like that is that you don't have as many people there clapping and applauding," Chad DeRigo said. "That type of energy when somebody is walking across the stage sticks with them for life. That feeling of having hundreds of people in the auditorium clapping and cheering, even if they don't know you."

“It was a wonderful ceremony,” Ratnasamy said. “I honestly kind of teared up when President Fuchs was singing ‘I Won’t Back Down’ by Tom Petty. That was such a tender moment.”

Outside of the O’Connell Center, family members who exceeded the two-person ticket limit could celebrate in the stadium. A livestream of the graduation ceremony was displayed on the video boards in the stadium for family members and friends of graduates to watch. 

For the 2020 makeup graduation ceremonies, watch parties were not held in the stadium.

On May 1, UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences graduates for the 7 p.m. graduation ceremony received an email 40 minutes before the ceremony stating the stadiums’ video boards would be offline due to a minor electrical fire inside one of the generators.  

This canceled the watch party and upset some graduate students who had family and friends eagerly waiting to watch their loved ones receive their diplomas on the big screens.

UF 2020 graduate Shane Washburn, boyfriend of graduate Kayla Ratnasamy, planned to attend the watch party before he heard the news. Disappointed, he realized he would have to go back to his girlfriend's apartment to watch the video without it buffering. Before he left, he watched as friends and extended family of the graduates, who had been waiting since the stadium opened, left in a dismayed manner. 

"I think some people just seemed a little bit upset that it was canceled," Washburn said.

On the other hand, Washburn understood that technical difficulties could arise. 

“Given the scenario, I don't think anyone can really blame them," Washburn said. "I don't think the fire was something that they could have predicted and they said they seemed to send out an email as soon as they knew about it."

The shutdown of screens did not affect the ceremony in the O’Connell Center directly, but some graduates’ families and friends became upset to be unable to watch the ceremony from the screens in the stadium. 

As a solution, faculty offered 101 additional tickets for people who were originally following the event from the stadium to go into the O’Connell Center for the remainder of the ceremony.

Murphy referenced her boyfriend, 19-year-old Ocala resident Rayfe Marquis, who texted her saying he was waiting in line to enter the O’Connell Center — UF officials turned him away. 

"I wish I could have been there with her to see her," Marquis said.

Marquis waited in line to receive one of the available guest ticket spaces that remained, but was too late and had to head back to the stadium to watch with his family.

At 9 p.m. another email was sent out to graduate students alerting them that one of the screens at the stadium had restored power. 

“Technicians worked swiftly and both monitors got fixed and tested by 11:30 p.m. on Saturday,” Hessy Fernandez, UF’s director of issues management and crisis communications, wrote in an email. 

The watch party occurred on schedule for the 9 a.m. graduation ceremony on May 2. 

Aside from the minor electrical fire in the stadium, both the 2021 and 2020 graduation ceremonies operated smoothly and many graduates were energized about having their graduation in-person. For many UF graduates, their graduation ceremony marked the last time they would set foot on UF’s campus — at least in the near future. 

“I’m feeling really great,” Sharma said. “I’m very proud of myself and I’m very happy and thankful to everyone who has helped me get here.”

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that of the about 10,000 students registered to attend graduation, about 3,000 were graduates of the Class of 2020. The Alligator previously reported otherwise.

Contact Makiya Seminera and Isabella Douglas at mseminera@alligator.org or idouglas@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @maksemineraor or @Ad_Scribendum.

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