Seniors share excitement ahead of in-person graduation

Graduating seniors are rejoicing and rueing the university’s decision to switch commencement ceremonies from the on-campus Watsco Center to the open-air Hard Rock Stadium, home to Canes football games some 25 miles away from campus in Miami Gardens.

Spring commencement, a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, last took place in person in 2019.

“I’m so excited,” said Allison Beyta, a senior entrepreneurship and marketing major. “We get a closure ceremony.”

Members of the Class of 2021 started their college careers with Hurricane Irma, which hit South Florida in fall of 2017, and will now finish college during a pandemic.

“They’ve been a resilient and adaptable class and we’re really proud of them,” said Patricia Whitely, senior vice president for student affairs. “We’re really glad to be able to provide this experience for them at Hard Rock Stadium and in person.”

Seven commencements are planned for this week at the Hard Rock Stadium, beginning on Wednesday, May 12, with the law school and medical school, and concluding Friday, May 14, for the baccalaureate degrees.

Danyel De Villiers, a broadcast journalism major, said he will attend his graduation on Friday.

“This is a big deal for my family to be able to see me walk across that stage,” De Villiers said. “It’ll be a really nice way to end out, especially given what we’ve gone through the past year because of the pandemic.”

Ashley Pittaluga, an event planner in the Office of Commencement and Special Projects, said even though the ceremonies will take place at the stadium, students will experience a traditional graduation.

“As far as the ceremony, we really are working as much as we can to have it be like a normal commencement,” Pittaluga said. “We’re definitely doing our best to make sure that the traditions and the pomp and circumstance will still be happening at Hard Rock Stadium. It’s just a new venue.”

“I started college going to football games at Hard Rock Stadium and now I’ll be finishing college there,” Beyta said.

“Having it at Hard Rock is cool,” said Dylan Aron, a computer science major. “I’m sad we couldn’t go to football games this past fall, so it’s great to get a chance to go over there again.”

Dana Feeney, also a computer science major, is not convinced.

“I hate it. I hate it so much,” Feeney said. “It’s so far away.”

Marianne Mijares, executive director of commencement in the Division of Student Affairs, said the school will be providing a shuttle service, by reservation, for students and their families from the university, to and from the stadium.

Feeney said the shuttles could be problematic.

“It just seems counterintuitive for the whole COVID stuff,” Feeney said. “I’ve been on those shuttles on the way to football games; they’re not large. So if you’re socially distancing at the stadium but shoving people in those shuttles, how does that accomplish anything?”

Mijares said an email will be sent to graduating students with details on questions like Feeney’s. She also said parking will be free at the stadium for students and families who want to drive to the stadium.

Robert Morrison, a biochemistry and psychology major, said he understands why the university made the decision to move the location but he would prefer to be on campus.

“I think the majority of people are vaccinated, so it’s kind of unnecessary to be doing it outside, so far away, when it would be so much more convenient to keep it at Watsco with the proper precautions,” Morrison said.

The university said safety protocols will be in place at Hard Rock, including a mask requirement for everyone and reserved, socially-distanced seating. A ticket limit for student guests was set at four tickets per student.

“It’s a little weird that we’re going to a stadium that can hold over 60,000 people in it, but we’re limited to four guests per person,” Aron said. “Even if 1,000 students were graduating at once, that would still be way stricter than CDC guidelines for distancing considering the room in the stadium.”

Mijares said the number of graduating students changes daily since some students applied past the deadline, but approximately 350 law students, 200 medical students, 1,200 new doctorate and master’s degree holders, and more than 2,100 baccalaureates will cross the Hard Rock stage. Additionally, all ceremonies will be live-streamed for virtual viewing.

Maxwell Trink, an electronic media major, said he will not be joining the in-person ceremony.

“I think the school is handling the safety aspect well at Hard Rock, but I’m not going,” Trink said. “I just feel like I want to be with my family and I don’t feel comfortable with them traveling in the pandemic, so I’d rather just celebrate at home with them.”

On the other hand, motion pictures major Jeremy Erdheim said he’s going primarily for his family.

“I graduated, and in my mind I’m thinking ‘great, I did it, but I don’t necessarily need to walk across the stage,’” Erdheim said. “However, my parents are very excited and really want to see me do it.”

Sofia Diaz contributed to this report.