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USF’s first in-person graduation in a while brings back some normalcy

About 3,000 graduates were expected to participate Saturday.
Kashari James, 25, of Tampa, who received her master’s degree in criminology, gets help from her mother, Janie James, before the University of South Florida's first in-person commencement ceremony since the pandemic. The ceremony was held at Tropicana Field on Saturday, “I’m just glad all the graduates get to celebrate each other since we have all been online,” James said.
Kashari James, 25, of Tampa, who received her master’s degree in criminology, gets help from her mother, Janie James, before the University of South Florida's first in-person commencement ceremony since the pandemic. The ceremony was held at Tropicana Field on Saturday, “I’m just glad all the graduates get to celebrate each other since we have all been online,” James said. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published May 8
Updated May 8

With less pomp and more circumstance, graduates of the University of South Florida turned their tassels and closed the books together on a final year of their college experiences that was spent mostly apart.

About 3,000 of the 7,200 graduates this year were expected to participate in the two in-person ceremonies held Saturday at Tropicana Field. Those who chose not to attend will be invited to participate in the make-up ceremonies planned for later this year to honor 2020 graduates who got no in-person sendoff.

They sat masked in chairs distanced on the field, with up to two guests per graduate spaced apart in the seats above. They did not cross the stage, but rather stood in place as their names were announced. A livestream was available online.

It was different, but represented first steps in more than a year toward normal. Over the last two weeks, state universities have begun holding in-person commencement ceremonies, and by summer, USF and many others plan to reopen to pre-COVID levels of in-person activity.

For USF student Jordan Nickels, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical health sciences, the morning still brought the “weird butterfly feeling” before the Tropicana Field festivities.

He doesn’t think he’ll have another graduation ceremony and after a year of interacting with his classmates and professors through Microsoft Teams, he was glad to bring closure to this chapter in person.

“It’s just a milestone in my life,” he said.

Twins Katerina and Molly Wentzel graduated from the College of Nursing.

While they each said the best part of their college experience was getting to do it together, they were glad they were able to graduate in the company of others.

“It’s nice being together with our college instead of just in our living room with our family,” Molly Wentzel said.

USF President Steve Currall told the class that while every graduation speaker tells their classmates their group is special, this year’s truly were for all they endured.

“Our graduates have shown resilience that no other graduating class has shown in living memory,” he said. “... your graduation at this unprecedented time represents a new future that is yet to be defined.”

Lessons about coping with and adapting to change, he said, would serve them well in the future.

There are three types of change in life he told them they could anticipate: change they choose, change that chooses them and events that change everything.

The world they are entering, he said, has been enormously changed — by the pandemic and recognition of racial injustices over the last year. That means, he told the graduates, an opportunity to rewrite the future.

”Your lives too are making history in proving how truly strong and resilient you are,” he said. “You will define these extraordinary times, empowered by your accomplishments at USF, to be audacious in your future aspirations.”

Nic Ballance, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, said he feels the last year put a damper on his college experience and online classes were not as enjoyable. Still, he said, he was happy to graduate in-person.

”We’re more capable than anybody else,” he said of his classmates.

Saleha Amir, who graduated with a bachelor’s in finance, said though she didn’t know what to expect as she stood outside Tropicana Field, she was glad to be gathering in person to celebrate with her friends.

Amir, an international student from Pakistan, took in the celebration with her friend, Maria Chaves, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. They said that as international students it was especially meaningful to celebrate with their cohort, even if their families could not join them.

The last year has been stressful for all students, Chaves said of navigating online classes and a global health crisis. She spent many months with her family in Brazil, unsure if she’d be able to return.

If anything, she said, the pandemic has taught the class of 2021 resilience.

“We still have to move forward,” she said. “We have to be mindful that we have no control of the future, but still do the best we can.”