At last, graduates were given the chance to put on their caps and gowns, leave their computer screens and attend the long-awaited in-person commencement, held Saturday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
The ceremonies marked the first in-person commencement since the university opted for online graduations last year to impede the spread of COVID-19. The commencement was split into two ceremonies, one taking place at 9 a.m. and another at 6:30 p.m. — with roughly 3,000 graduates total in attendance.
The spring 2021 class was awarded 7,200 degrees, of which 5,206 were undergraduate, 1,691 were master’s, 289 were doctoral and 12 were specialist’s degrees.
Holding the university’s mace, Faculty Senate President Timothy Boaz declared the convocation open. During his speech, he represented the voices of all faculty when speaking about the students’ accomplishments during the past year.
His speech was then followed by the national anthem, sung by microbiology major Tala Rippin.
The class was composed of graduates from across all 50 states and 100 countries. Saefallah Mohamed, a 17-year-old graduate, earned a degree in both biomedical sciences and public health, becoming the youngest graduate of the spring 2021 class.
As the third graduate from his family, Mohamed plans to pursue a master’s degree and eventually apply to medical school in the upcoming years. While he’s still in awe for reaching this milestone, he said during the ceremony, his age didn’t matter at all.
“I think the thing I feel the most, being the youngest graduate, is comfort in the fact that I have time,” Mohamed said. “I have time to explore offshoots of interest to me before I pursue my end goal of a medical career. I also feel very celebrated by my friends and the university, and I truly appreciate everyone’s support.
“However, for the most part, I don’t notice the age difference much. Standing as my name was called today, I felt connected to all the graduates of my class. For the duration of the ceremony, at least, we were all one and the same: USF graduates.”
During the ceremony, students patiently waited for their names to be called and the opportunity to stand up, wave and be recognized for their accomplishments. All graduates were seated 6 feet apart from each other across the arena while their two guests, who were also socially distancing, cheered them on from the stands.
Both ceremonies lasted three hours and engaged thousands of people celebrating the graduating class — both inside and outside the arena. The livestream for the 9 a.m. ceremony received more than 18,000 views while the 6:30 p.m. ceremony received more than 12,000 as of Saturday evening.
The 9 a.m. ceremony featured graduates from the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, Muma College of Business, College of Education, Morsani College of Medicine, College of Nursing, Taneja College of Pharmacy and College of Public Health, which featured 1,400 graduates in attendance.
Graduates from the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Patel College of Global Sustainability, Marine Science and the Arts, as well as Undergraduate Studies and Graduate Studies, attended the 6:30 p.m. ceremony. Around 1,600 graduates sat on the thousands of white chairs spread across Tropicana Field.
Following the national anthem, President Steven Currall addressed the graduates, emphasizing their resilience and the immensity of their achievement.
“Every graduation ceremony speaker says that the new graduates are special,” Currall said. “This year, that is really true. Our graduates have shown resilience that no other graduating class has shown in living memory.”
Currall said the academic, athletic and leadership achievements of the class were even more impressive given the obstacles faced due to the pandemic and during the end of the graduates’ college careers.
“Despite historic changes to academic and campus activities, you accomplished amazing results,” he said.
Even though the students’ paths were laden with obstacles to graduation, Currall said learning to overcome those obstacles was the most significant thing students could take away from their experience at USF.
“As graduates, you emerge strengthened and tempered by your resiliency and your determination to succeed,” he said. “Throughout your time here you have learned tremendous lessons. Among them, and perhaps most important during the past year, is learning to cope with and adapt to change.”
While Currall touched on themes of resilience and triumph, Student Body President Claire Mitchell spoke about taking the time to slow down and enjoy the moment they had worked so many years to achieve.
“In today’s world we live in a society that is so fast-paced that we forget what it’s like to live as though time can slow down. You felt time passing by, at incredible speeds as your journey through college seemed to fly by,” Mitchell said.
“I challenge you, as you sit here today, to soak up this moment. Instead of wishing for time to go by faster, take a moment and forget time. Instead, wish for it to slow down because class of 2021, you have astonished us all with your resilience, and your drive to succeed, even through some of the most difficult circumstances.”
Mitchell said she is certain that she will see great things from the class of 2021, as they leave USF behind and move on to make an impact in their communities.
“You leave behind an impression on this university that will last a lifetime and it’s opened countless new doors to those who follow in your footsteps,” she said. “I know that each and every single one of you has the power to be a change maker in this world.”
The pride of the graduates was tangible as they completed their long journey. As they moved their tassels from the right side of their caps to the left, Currall commended each of them for their achievement.
“You did not choose to graduate during a global pandemic,” he said. “This moment in time has chosen you, and you have risen to the challenge.”