Although graduating in an unexpected way, USF’s class of 2020 created history Saturday by becoming the first class to have a virtual commencement ceremony due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
While the ceremony was a moment of celebration for many, some felt left out as their names were not included on the list of graduates.
Jordan Gaias said she was excited to graduate with a degree in mass communications, however, while waiting to read her name on the screen at home with her whole family around her, it never came up.
“I was very disappointed to have my entire family videoing the screen to see that my name was excluded from the list of graduates,” Gaias said. “My close friends and classmates were there but my name was not. I’m so disappointed and upset. I have confirmed multiple times with administration and advising that I would be graduating this spring so I don’t understand what went wrong.”
The ceremony was made available at 10 a.m across all three campuses — Tampa, St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee. Featuring speeches from USF President Steven Currall, Provost Ralph Wilcox and Student Body President Britney Deas, the ceremony at the Tampa campus had over 11,800 views as of 9:40 a.m. on Sunday.
For the St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee campuses, the ceremonies include their respective regional chancellors, Martin Tadlock and Karen Holbrook, and respective campus student government presidents — Jazzy Duarte and Isabelle Starner.
With over 6,000 graduates, the Tampa ceremony was the longest, lasting about 90 minutes. In comparison, St. Pete’s lasted 29 minutes with over 1,800 views, and Sarasota-Manatee’s was the shortest commencement, ending at around 24 minutes with over 1,100 views as of 9:40 a.m. on Sunday.
The names of more than 7,000 graduates scrolled down the screen for more than an hour during the virtual commencement. All names were listed by degree type — doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s — separated by college while listed in alphabetical order. Within each college, the degree programs and students’ names were displayed in alphabetical order as well.
The class, consisting of about 7,400 graduates from all three campuses, represented all 50 states as well as over 100 nations. Among the degrees awarded, 6,617 were from Tampa, 544 from St. Pete and 280 from Sarasota-Manatee.
While graduate Ekaterina Koptenko was able to see her name on the screen, her recognition of summa cum laude was not acknowledged.
“I put a lot of hard work into earning this degree, and I felt like it was all disregarded in this ceremony,” Koptenko said. “Not only did I not get to walk on stage, but I also didn’t even get the summa cum laude recognition that I worked for so hard.
“For me, this virtual commencement ceremony was likely the only ceremony. My parents know how much I have studied. So when they were watching the commencement with me, they were also very upset by what happened. And while I understand that this was a very unusual commencement ceremony in a completely new format, the mistake itself still felt quite discouraging and disappointing.”
After not having their names displayed on the screen during the ceremony, more than 10 students also decided to voice their opinions on USF’s class of 2020 Facebook group, where the issue became a hot topic only a few hours after the virtual commencement was released.
The university was not available for comment by the time of publication.
Although some students were disappointed, others felt the ceremony honored their successes well.
Celebrating her Bachelor of Science in health sciences with her family, Kaylie Caraway said she was satisfied with the experience.
“I thought the ceremony was well done,” Caraway said. “My experience was very nice. I had family in town and we celebrated last night and today.”
While the graduates virtually celebrated their accomplishments, the commencements were marked by the silence of an empty room and an absence of applause from a live crowd.
Previously recorded in April, the ceremonies took place at the Marshall Student Center Oval Theater where only the speakers were in attendance.
Without an audience and while standing on an empty stage, Currall addressed the graduating class with a six-minute speech highlighting the importance of the occasion during these unprecedented times.
“This momentous occasion, although celebrated in a different format, is no less important and still marks the beginning of the next chapter of your life, a chapter where you will use the knowledge, the expertise and the experience you gained from USF to change the world and shape the future,” Currall said.
During his speech, Currall acknowledged the hardships faced by the graduating class during the transition from in-person to remote instruction as well as having their entire university experience change.
“You found ways to stay connected to your professors and your classmates,” Currall said. “You continue to innovate and find new ways of gaining knowledge, no matter what you studied, or where you studied it, you persevered.”
Following Currall, Deas, a senior, took the stage to address her fellow graduates.
Deas reflected on the past semester and the unexpected changes that happened along the way due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This pandemic has certainly transformed our year, taking with it the most precious moments and memories to be cherished,” Deas said.
“These buildings are currently bored of your presence, reminding us that you, the students, are the heartbeat of this university. You keep us going. You give us purpose, you challenge us, you work with us. You make us proud.”
Most of her speech was based on 20 points of pride and personal accounts representing “the people we are today and the resilient leaders of tomorrow.”
After talking about the student body and the university, Deas added a personal touch to her speech when talking about her experience when she first arrived at USF as well as acknowledging her mother and all single parents.
“My mother has sacrificed plenty to get me to where I am today,” Deas said. “Mommy, it has always been just the two of us. I love you, and I hope I’ve made you proud.”
After Deas’ speech, Wilcox recognized the outstanding graduate award winners and King O’Neal 4.0 GPA scholars. The ceremony then came to an end, with Currall conferring the degrees and the College of the Arts Chamber Singers performing USF’s alma mater.
“Each person on this earth has unique life experiences, a story that we can learn and draw connections from,” Deas said. “This belief relates to the University of South Florida because it is in our differences that we discovered the importance of community. There is meaning in the term student body, for we are one.”