After a year of canceled and virtual graduations due to the pandemic, the largest private university in South Florida held seven in-person commencement ceremonies spread out from Wednesday to Friday this week, awarding degrees to more than 3,800 undergraduate, graduate, law and medical students.
But instead of celebrating the occasion at its usual venue — its own Coral Gables arena, Watsco Center — the University of Miami chose Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, where the Canes football team usually plays, to allow for social distancing.
Other than leaving extra space among graduates and guests to avert the spread of the coronavirus, UM also required facial coverings and cleaned the lectern after each use.
Citing the efficacy of caccines on Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rescinded almost all masking and distancing guidelines for people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. It is unclear if UM considered amending its health protocols for the Friday events after the news.
Organizers also shaved a few minutes from the speeches so that each ceremony lasted about an hour and 50 minutes, instead of a little over two hours.
They eliminated the student procession at the beginning and end, and decreased the number of administrators and others on the makeshift stage on the field, decorated with about 10 long white, orange and green drapes.
In front of the stage, students wearing decorated caps and black gowns with the emblematic split U sat in white folding chairs set up in rows. At one point, taking turns, each graduate walked across the stage and posed for a photo with UM President Julio Frenk, who also wore a mask.
Limited capacity for 2021 graduates and guests
Each student got to bring four guests, who occupied stadium seats in pods to allow for separation among strangers. Other loved ones got the option to watch remotely through a live-stream that attracted about 1,300 viewers during the largest ceremony — the 1 p.m. one on Friday.
During that busiest ceremony Friday afternoon, 830 graduates and 3,215 guests confirmed attending, according to UM. That’s about 4,050 in a stadium with a seating capacity of roughly 65,300.
The unpredictable Florida weather cooperated, after UM gave each graduate a poncho, a fan, a facial covering and a bottle of water. The guest speakers mostly addressed the invitees in person; however, in 2020 fashion, some checked in virtually.
Patricia Whitely, the senior vice president for student affairs at UM, said only students graduating in 2021 got invited to this week’s festivities, but 2020 graduates will get a chance to enjoy a similar experience during the first week of November.
Last spring, UM canceled the events due to the pandemic. Last fall, it first planned to hold them in person but switched course two weeks beforehand and held them online instead.
“Everybody would have wanted to walk in person, we know that,” she said. “We just simply, sadly could not accommodate that with what we need to do at Hard Rock with our numbers for the spring, but we are giving them an option for Homecoming and Alumni Weekend.”
When asked if she sees face-to-face ceremonies as the final step toward returning to normalcy, Whitely said, “it’s certainly one of the steps. I don’t think it’s the final step.”
“I think there are still some unknowns in terms of the fall,” she added. “We’re expecting to pivot back to as normal as possible, but we still have a number of issues that we all need to work out.”
The culmination of a ‘truly historic year’
President Frenk, who’s one of the world’s foremost public-health experts and has led UM through the coronavirus crisis, spoke for about five minutes at each of the three undergraduate graduations Friday, starting off by saying the gathering “culminates a truly historic year.”
“You have heard from me regularly over the past 15 months in 54 video messages, to be precise, so in the interest of time … I will not belabor the magnitude of the challenges we have faced together. Instead, I will make two important points that I trust you will carry with you throughout your lives,” he told graduates.
He then reminded them that the ability to bounce back after adversity “is not innate”, and therefore they have to practice over and over to build on their resilience. He also encouraged them to always make sure that what drives them “is more than mere self-interest.”
“If the experiences of this era have taught us nothing else, they have shown us that our decisions affect others. Let your impact be a positive one,” he said.
James Lai, one of the graduates, told a Miami Herald reporter that although the pandemic delivered tragedies, it also served as the backdrop to a memory that he will treasure the most when he looks back at this undergraduate journey at UM.
Lai, originally from Southeast Asia, graduated with a biomedical-engineering degree Friday and will continue his studies at UM’s Miller School of Medicine. This past year, he developed 3-D-printable swabs for COVID-19 testing during the initial shortage.
“That’s my degree in practice, which is why it was an amazing experience for me,” said Lai, 22.
He applied to be one of this year’s student commencement speakers and after a rigorous interview process with about 15 people, he won the opportunity and addressed the crowd during the Friday evening commencement ceremony.
In his about three-minute speech, he shared why he felt he belonged at UM and why he hopes his fellow graduates will always feel that way.