By MANI THANGADURAI
Every university student longs for graduation, when his or her collegiate journey comes full circle, signaling the beginning of a new life. For such an occasion, it’s only natural to expect a grand ceremony celebrating one of the grandest of traditions.
Over the years, UT has seldom failed to offer graduation ceremonies which provide a fitting backdrop to the conclusion of the students’ collegiate journeys. The brilliance of the ceremonies was a combination of the choice of venue and the way they were conducted, although while planning for UT’s expansion the administration put little thought into providing a venue specifically for large-scale events. The fall graduation ceremonies were conducted at the Martinez Center, and the spring ceremonies were conducted at the Amalie Arena, a 15-minute walk from UT. In both venues, students felt a sense of connection to the university. Amalie Arena especially provided a wow-factor to proceedings.
This year, UT has made a permanent decision to conduct the ceremonies at a new venue, the Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds on US Highway 301. Eight miles away from downtown Tampa, it’s far enough away to lack the connection to UT which made the earlier commencements special (and convenient). Sadly, it’s a reflection of the future expansion of UT and the increasing size of the graduating classes. In light of the 2016 December ceremony, it’s now clear that the Martinez Center cannot host a large enough commencement. Amalie representatives have also been ruthless in prioritizing incoming musical acts over UT graduation. UT unsurprisingly took this decision for the sake of clarity, since the graduates of May 2017 were told of the venue change late in the semester. The late Tom Petty was slated to perform in Tampa that day. It’s a shock to go from the comfort of familiar, close surroundings to a new faraway venue which is spacious but unfurnished.
Since 2013 I have observed some wonderful commencement ceremonies both at Martinez and Amalie. My first commencement as a visitor was in spring 2014 at the then Tampa Bay Times Forum. The sight of the students walking into the arena to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance, seen on many screens and the giant jumbotron, was enough to make graduating students feel like superstars. I wanted my “Amalie moment” in May 2018 and was dismayed when told that it wouldn’t happen.
I have witnessed two commencement ceremonies at the Fairgrounds, and both have been disappointing. In the spring, the students are now split by colleges. The College of Arts and Letters and College of Business have a ceremony in the morning, and the College of Natural and Health Science and College of Social Sciences, Mathematics and Education follow in the afternoon. Furthermore, one of the more sacred aspects of the commencement ceremony is the students participating in the procession. Sadly, the students now sit in their seats without hearing the graduation march. It’s like hearing everyone sing “Happy Birthday” to someone else at your own party!
I have started thinking seriously about the merits of participating in such a commencement when I graduate in May, since I am not keen on participating in a ceremony which won’t fulfill my aspirations. Craig Laird, a MBA student from England, feels similarly perturbed about the change in venue.
“I earned my bachelor’s degree from UT in 2015,” Laird said. “The fact that my mother and sister-in-law saw me and felt proud made it special. However, there’s something extra special about walking at Amalie; seeing your name on the jumbotron feels euphoric … I feel let down at having to make my family organize a long drive to the Fairgrounds. I don’t think it suits UT’s prestigious status.”
Jennifer Scaia, Associate Dean of Student Conduct, Orientation and Residence Life, shared some positive feedback about the venue from students and families, namely that the setting was more intimate. The free parking provided was a bonus. Dr. Stephanie Krebs, Dean of Students said her husband was happy to graduate at the Fairgrounds in December 2017 because of the shorter event time. According to Dr. Krebs and Scaia, that feedback supported the decision to switch to the Fairgrounds.
Two recent graduates have similar views. Estefania Vargas, who graduated last May, said that she wasn’t upset about the decision to change venues and chose to remember the moment in its totality.
“Sitting with my two closest friends including my best friend from high school, I still had a good time,” said Vargas. “Graduation at the Fairgrounds was still a pretty intimate affair. Family members and friends were getting emotional and crying. It would have been more convenient to have it at Amalie since it’s closer to UT, but the new location didn’t affect me.”
Gershom Vacarizas, who graduated in December 2017, had a similarly positive outlook.
“It was disappointing to enter without hearing the graduation march,” said Vacarizas. “However, what mattered most was walking in with my closest friends, with family and loved ones cheering. The expo hall was still intimate, with the audience seated closer to the graduates than at Amalie.”
Not all students felt happy, like Helen Holvoet from Belgium who graduated last May.
“I was upset at the decision to change venues and signed a petition to change it back to Amalie and another letter to President Vaughn,” said Holvoet. “I disagree with claims that the setting was more intimate, since I saw people disinterested and on their cellphones the whole time. I spent 25 minutes looking for my family members after the ceremony, so the organization was chaotic. In my opinion, Amalie Arena will always be the ideal venue for a graduation ceremony. More professional, more organized, more intimate and more special for the graduating student.”
With the Expo Hall now our venue for future ceremonies, how can students’ experiences be improved? UT could start by arranging transport so that students can see their friends graduate. I also believe that there should be a separate ceremony for students finishing in August who currently form a large chunk of the graduating batch in the spring. I firmly believe that students MUST also be allowed to walk in while the graduation march is playing, because it makes a difference between being made to feel honored and being dismissed as an afterthought.
The last words go to Troy Schneider, who serves as Vice President of UT’s Student Government.
“I am looking forward to graduating in May 2018 and I believe that it will be special,” Schneider said. “Traditions change and this case is no different. The fact that it’s a recent change is a shock to many people, but I believe that over time, students will embrace the Fairgrounds as a wonderful graduation venue for UT.”
More optimistic words have seldom been spoken, but as with all things, only time will tell.
Mani Thangadurai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org