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Although the University of Iowa’s first-ever graduation celebration inside historic Kinnick Stadium on Sunday was not an official commencement ceremony, there were plenty of caps and gowns.
Thousands of new UI graduates — clad in traditional graduation garb — shuffled with family and friends through the Kinnick gates that have remained largely locked this academic year, a time that saw COVID-19 curtail in-person learning and cancel face-to-face college rites such as football and commencement.
Official commencement still occurred virtually for all UI colleges and programs this spring, as it did last spring and in the winter. But for the first time since the pandemic arrived in March 2020, the university hosted a large gathering for an institutionally sanctioned event.
“I think for all of us … this is a pretty emotional time,” outgoing UI President Bruce Harreld told the graduates from a covered stage along with dignitaries on what marked his final day on the job. “Not only because of the graduation and our celebration here today. But because … it's the first time many of us have been able to see us and be with each other.”
The UI this spring is conferring degrees on 5,300 undergraduate, graduate and professional students. About 2,070 graduates reserved a ticket for the in-person celebration Sunday, and each was allowed up to six tickets for guests — putting the projected total attendance at 5,000 to 8,000 individuals, or approximately 10 percent of Kinnick’s capacity.
With a growing percent of the population vaccinated and public health officials easing masking guidance, few people wore face coverings during Sunday’s ceremony — showing how far the country and community have come, even since the celebration was announced earlier this semester.
Commencement speakers acknowledged those broader achievements in overcoming unprecedented challenges in also praising graduates, specifically, for doing the same in earning their degrees amid never-before-seen circumstances.
“We got through it together,” Harreld said. “That may be the first message I want to convey to you today. Together, we as Hawkeyes, as Iowans, as United States citizens, as members of the world, we will all do better together.
“Let's continue to do what you just did throughout the 18 months of this pandemic. Let's work together.”
After announcing in October his plans to retire early, Sunday marked Harreld’s final day as UI president — although he didn’t specifically mention his departure during the graduation celebration.
“I don't believe in goodbyes,” Harreld said to the graduates, many of whom are leaving the university the same time he is. “I believe in ‘see you around.’ This world is all interconnected. And so I'm not going to say goodbye.
“But I want you to know, we're all here to help you,” he said. “And we all expect you to come back and help us.
“If you ever need anything, we're here to help you. And we know we can count on you.”
Although Sunday’s celebration included some of the markings of a traditional graduation — such as student speakers, the Pomp and Circumstance march, and administrative regalia — it excluded other norms, such as the reading of graduate names and a walk across the stage.
It did sprinkle in some exclusively-UI notes. Dignitaries, for example, walked onto the field to AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” as does the Hawkeye football squad on game days. And the crowd took a few minutes to wave to the neighboring UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital — another relatively new UI football tradition.
Hawkeye wrestler and UI senior Michael Kemerer was among the graduates in attendance — earning his master’s in finance — and said he was glad to have some form of in-person commencement, even if it wasn’t the more traditional version.
“I think everyone's going to remember going through graduation in a COVID setting,” Kemerer said.
“We just took some pictures and we had our masks on because there might never be something like this again. It's such a unique experience.”
Jasmine Mayes-Browning was graduating with her master’s degree in sport and recreation management — after getting her undergraduate from UI in health and human physiology — and she, too, was happy to celebrate with her parents and extended family inside Kinnick.
Although she would have liked more in-person experiences this year, Mayes-Browning said she also sees some silver linings in all that she had to overcoming.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and how to adapt,” she said. “That was really valuable.”
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