In a year full of uncertainties, the moment senior Stephanie Peak heard the news that COVID-19 would not prevent her from having an in-person graduation ceremony, she heaved a sigh of relief that her four years of work would ultimately be recognized beyond her computer screen.
Peak’s journey toward becoming the first person in her family to graduate college was not easy, but it is one she wants to make sure receives its deserved recognition. As a first-generation college student, this milestone will mark a significant accomplishment for her and her family.
“It would be a very emotional and satisfying event that celebrates my perseverance over the last four years,” Peak said. “Not only would it be celebrating my previous achievements, but would also be celebrating my future plans to attend graduate school. For me, an in-person ceremony would be one of the most memorable moments of my life.”
In a universitywide email, President Steven Currall announced Monday afternoon the 2021 spring commencement will be held in person at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg with a limited capacity of two guests per graduate and required face coverings.
While this announcement was long-awaited by many graduating seniors, including Peak, the excitement was short-lived and disappointment burgeoned after being informed they won’t be allowed to walk across the stage to the song “Pomp and Circumstance” in head-to-toe regalia, nor have their names announced across the arena.
“Most of us understood that our graduation would be far from normal due to the pandemic, but we did not expect for the bare minimum of adequate recognition for completing our degrees to be stripped away,” Peak said.
Tess Butler, a graduating health sciences major, was also excited about the prospect of an in-person graduation, until she read that her name would not be called.
“I think that the university’s decision to not allow graduates to walk nor have their names called is not only disheartening but unfair,” she said. “We worked hard for four years and deserve to be acknowledged. I understand [administration] wanting to keep everything safe due to the pandemic, however, I cannot comprehend how calling our names puts anyone at risk.”
The decision, according to Currall, was made in an effort to prevent transmission.
“To mitigate the risk of viral transmission, students will not cross the stage or have their names announced during the ceremony,” Currall said. “Doctoral students will not be hooded during the ceremony and will instead wear their hoods throughout the entirety of the event.”
The prevalence of disappointment in seniors after the announcement led graduating health science major Haley Leslie-Haferkamp to create a petition demanding USF announce each graduate’s name during the ceremonies.
“What didn’t quite make sense was the elimination of the emcee saying our names and degrees,” Leslie-Haferkamp said.
“USF claims that this also falls into a COVID-19 precaution, but the amount of time we will already be spending at Tropicana Field will negate any sort of extra measure this intends to provide. Exposure will occur either way after a certain amount of time has passed. If it were truly that big of a concern, why hold the ceremony in person in the first place?”
Hours after the news broke, she began emailing the commencement team, Currall and Student Government to voice her concerns and demands. The response received from others expressing the same concerns started growing immensely on social media, which led Leslie-Haferkamp to create the petition.
“Establishing normalcy for once would be idyllic, in any sense that we can achieve it,” she said.
“My class has worked hard over the past few years, as all other classes have, and it seems only fair that we are allowed every opportunity to be recognized for our achievements. Hopefully it will be enough to get their attention and convince them to change their minds.”
In less than seven hours since its creation, the petition received more than 300 signatures.
The support the petition garnered was reflective of the seniors’ feelings toward the decision to omit student names despite the general satisfaction of students about the decision to hold an in-person ceremony.
Stephanie Paola Suarez, a senior majoring in chemistry, was happy about USF’s decision to host in-person commencement ceremonies and was aware of the mitigation risks that would be put into place.
However, she said the decision to skip each graduate’s announcement was “disrespectful.”
“Not being able to walk across the stage I understand, but to not have our names be announced is just disrespectful,” Paola Suarez said. “It’s upsetting to me that USF thought that not saying our names at graduation was a good call when every other school in Florida is having their names be called.
“A graduation ceremony is all about being recognized. It’s recognizing the hard work that we have put in for the last four years … There is a sense of pride that comes from hearing your name being read aloud at a graduation ceremony. It’s an ‘I did that’ feeling.”
The ceremonies will be held May 7-9 for students from all three campuses. Graduates are required to preregister by April 5 in order to secure their spot. A livestream will also be available for those who are not able to attend.
The dream of walking across the stage has been a long journey for many students, especially during a global pandemic. During festivities, graduating chemistry student Bailey Richardson was hoping his parents, who live out of state, would be able to hear his name echo throughout the arena.
To his dismay as well as his parents’, it won’t.
“I am disappointed that they will not be announcing our names or even showing a slideshow with our names on it, considering even the virtual graduations had that included,” Richardson said.
“My parents live out of state and want to be there for me, but it just seems very impersonal to not have the students’ names recognized in any way. I believe having people’s names read or shown even on a screen would give each graduate a time of celebration for all of their hard work to get here.”
Not being able to walk across the stage has also upset students like health sciences major Ajla Balic. As the first person in her family to graduate college, she said the fact that graduates won’t have the opportunity to cross the Tropicana Field stage would make an in-person ceremony “pointless.”
“Personally, I believe the in-person graduation is a waste of time and I hate to say that but it completely defies traditional graduation ceremonies,” Balic said.
“Knowing that USF can’t even announce their students’ names after four years (or more for master’s/doctorate degrees) of continuous hard work is very upsetting to me and I feel like it’s disrespectful to us after all of our hard work and spent money on the university.”
Students like Antonius Hadley, a senior elementary education major at the USF St. Pete campus, felt that the way the graduating class adapted to the obstacles presented by COVID-19 warranted personal recognition.
“If our names are not even recognized, then what is the point of having a graduation ceremony,” he said. “I don’t think it will be worth attending a ceremony to listen to people give speeches that have never met the majority of us or have had no major impact in our college academic experiences.”
Having an in-person graduation ceremony is just the first step toward fully recognizing the graduating class’ accomplishments during a year like no other, according to Leslie-Haferkamp. She said there are still other demands to be met before “Pomp and Circumstance” starts playing.
“The announcement of our names and degrees at the ceremony is a relatively small change that can make the graduates of USF feel as if they are valued by the university,” Leslie-Haferkamp said. “It is too easy these days to feel as if you’re only just a number contributing thousands of dollars a semester to an institution that doesn’t really care about you.
“I love USF. It’s been my home for the past three years and I know that they are open to change when it is appropriate. I, along with the rest of my peers, believe this to be an appropriate time for a change.”