Members of the University of Tampa’s administration approached the podium on Plant Hall’s grand staircase, one by one, to address students.
“We know you are excited and anxious about what lies ahead,” UT president Ronald Vaughn said. “We, however, are confident in your future.”
It was a pandemic-era graduation ceremony, held virtually and streamed to the public, with 1,781 students from 50 countries around the world receiving their degrees in UT’s 152nd commencement.
UT made the decision to hold its ceremony online in February, citing concerns about health during the pandemic.
“Simply put, given the continued uncertainty of COVID-19, advice from public health officials and rules governing large gatherings, the university could not realistically host a safe — yet meaningful — academic celebration,” the university said in a message to students at the time.
The university divided its virtual ceremonies amongst its four colleges. Each started with a welcome from vice president for student affairs and dean of students Stephanie Russell Krebs and a commencement opening by Eric Vlahov, professor of health sciences and human performance. Then President Vaughn took the stage, following the national anthem and UT Board of Trustee Chairman Jim MacLeod addressed students.
“I suspect that over time you will fully embrace this as a time of great intellectual advancement in the most unusual circumstances,” MacLeod said, reflecting on the challenges graduates faced entering the world during a pandemic.
Following the administration, student government leaders addressed graduates. Then, each college’s dean offered reflections in their separate livestreams, which were followed by speeches from students chosen from each college.
Karla Maiden-Vazquez, a 2021 graduate from the College of Arts and Letters reflected on the pandemic, climate change and the death of George Floyd. She said racism is another global pandemic and encouraged her classmates to take action to improve the world.
“Recognize the need for change and become the change we need,” Maiden-Vazquez said.
Student speaker Maredh Lopez Ocasio, of the College of Natural and Health Sciences congratulated her classmates on their graduation.
“We stood strong despite all the obstacles we encountered and we created memories that will last forever,” she said.
The class of 2021 included 1,540 undergraduates and 241 master’s degree candidates, with 55 percent of students from Florida, according to a university news release.
After the speakers concluded their remarks, the university streamed the names of graduating students, read by Robert Gonzalez, associate professor of speech, theatre, and dance. UT also offered a posthumous degree to class of 2021 student Mohanad Mokaibel, who died before completing his degree in management.
A total of 10 bachelor’s degree candidates graduated summa cum laude, with a GPA of 4.0, the release said. Another 164 students graduated magna cum laude with a GPA of at least 3.75 but less than 4.0 and 273 students graduated cum laude, with a GPA of at least 3.5, but less than 3.75.
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The top three majors in this class were finance, management and marketing.
A total of 14 master’s degree candidates graduated with honors, meaning they had a GPA of at least 3.9 but less than 4.0 while 14 students graduated with highest honors, meaning they had a 4.0 GPA. The University of Tampa awarded 62 MBAs, according to its news release.
While UT’s official commencement was live-streamed, a group of students organized a ceremony at the Tampa Convention Center for those who wanted to celebrate in person, featuring speeches from actor Sean Penn and CEO of the Produce Marketing Association Cathy Burns.
Organizer and class of 2021 graduate Emma Stange said the ceremony was meaningful to her because she helped fight for an in-person ceremony after UT moved its commencement online and because she and other organizers tailored it to the personalities of the students involved.
“It’s hard to put into words,” she said. “It means more than just walking across a stage.”
Organizers raised more than $25,000, selling tickets to 224 students. Class of 2021 graduate and organizer Allison Clark planned to watch the virtual commencement with friends before heading to the in-person ceremony she helped plan. Waking up Saturday morning, she was glad to know she’d have the chance to walk across the stage and not just watch her graduation virtually.
“I’m very very thankful for this moment,” she said.