UT Prepares for its First In-Person Commencement Since 2019
By Dominique LaVigne
Reporting Texas TV
AUSTIN, Texas — In January, The University of Texas at Austin announced plans to host its first in-person graduation ceremony since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike traditional UT graduation ceremonies in front of the UT Tower, the spring commencement will take place at Darrell K. Royal Stadium on May 22 at 8 p.m.
This announcement comes as a relief to many students who feel their hard work will finally be celebrated after more than a year of uncertainty.
Senior dance major Uwazi Zamani is one of those happy graduates-to-be. Before he started school, Zamani spent several years working as a professional dancer, which made him an untraditional student at UT.
Now 30 years old, he’s the only Black man in his family to graduate college, and the only Black man in his program’s graduating class this spring.
“They didn’t know that I was 30, and I had to politely tell them, ‘I know I am a first- year student here, but I’m not here to keep my head down and go quietly,’” Zamani said.
He uses his story to encourage other students that there is never one path to success.
His family and friends will all come to Austin to celebrate his accomplishments, but only six of his guests will be allowed to attend the in-stadium ceremony. His other guests will watch a live stream of the ceremony on the commencement website.
The COVID Investigating Committee began planning for this year’s ceremony last fall. The committee consists of public health experts, members of the contact tracing team, and environmental health and safety experts who collect available data and make recommendations to the UT administration.
“The idea is that the group is monitoring everything going on on-campus and using that to make small changes like changes in our testing regime as well as recommending larger policy changes at times to the Executive Committee,” said committee member Art Markman.
The committee determined that a controlled outdoor environment would be the best solution for a large crowd.
“Outdoors was a must because we know that having a constant supply of fresh air is really crucial for safety, and we didn’t want any events that were going to be large events indoors,” Markman said.
In the past week, Travis County recorded a seven-day average of 89 cases a day. Over 38% of the Texas population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Guests and graduates must follow guidelines already in place from this fall’s football games, and masks and social distancing will be required for everyone in attendance.
Kathleen Harrison, the communications director for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, said the ample space at the stadium could allow for more guests at future graduation ceremonies.
“From a visual standpoint, I can see the Tower being something that’s pretty significant for a lot of students and families, and I’m guessing people would want to go back to that, but there could be some upsides to the stadium once we’re past the pandemic,” Harrison said.
Administrators still hope to preserve the excitement of the graduation celebration. After they made their recommendations to the executive committee, the events team took over planning.
“The events team really worked from there to try to create something that would preserve as much of the pomp and circumstance to have a good commencement ceremony while still keeping everybody safe,” Markman said.
Despite the differences, one thing will stay the same. Students will continue to celebrate their undergraduate accomplishments.
In addition to getting through school during the pandemic, Zamani said this graduation is a testament to defying the statistics. He hopes to be an example to young Black men with whom he works.
He maintained a 3.9 GPA while completing his bachelor’s degree in two years, and will attend the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for a master’s degree.
“I’m proud of myself, and I think I want everybody to know just how proud I am,” Zamani said.
“You can call it bragging. You can call it arrogant. You can call it whatever you want to, but I worked my ass off. I’m excited,” he said
“I say don’t make the journey about proving them wrong, but listen, I wanna flex so hard when I walk across this stage. Like c’mon, I’ve earned this.”
Graduates and guests can visit the commencement website for more updates on the ceremony.