The day dawned clear and bright as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley graduates of 2021 took to the stage at 8 a.m. Saturday for the first in-person commencement ceremony since the COVID-19 pandemic began at the Brownsville campus.
While most graduates probably never dreamed that their commencement would happen in a parking lot, the university decked out the necessarily open-air facility with carpeting, folding chairs, three giant screens and a massive stage decorated with elegant sprays of ferns to provide the best send-off possible for their vaqueros.
Parents, friends and family filled the area set up for the graduates’ guests and brandished balloons, flowers and in some cases cutouts of their graduates’ face to celebrate their special day.
Across three ceremonies 780 graduates crossed the stage, starting the next chapter in their journey.
The 8 a.m. ceremony featured graduates from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, College of Education and P-16 Integration, Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship, College of Sciences and the Mathematics and Science Academy.
In a pre-recorded address, UTRGV President Guy Bailey discussed his belief in this year’s graduates and gave a few words of wisdom as they entered the world outside the university.
“As you go into life, things will be different. Your teacher will be experience. Vern Law, who used to be a pitcher for the Pittsburg Pirates when I was a little boy, said this about experience: ‘It’s a real hard teacher. You get the test before you get the lesson’,” Bailey said. “The good news is you are well prepared…You learned through this pandemic. You learned to adjust. You learned to persist. I have no doubt that you are all going to be great successes in life.”
For two of Saturday’s graduates, Zucely Gomez, 24 , and Cynthia Gallegos, 40, from the College of Education, this moment provided closure to what has been a long year of uncertainty.
“I was just praying every night hoping the vaccinations were going to come in as soon as possible,” Gomez said. “So when they said the commencement ceremony was going to happen in person I said ‘I’m fully vaccinated and ready to go’.”
“We were just praying for the best and thankfully it came through for us,” Gallegos said.
While for many graduates, family at their ceremonies is an important part of commemorating all of their hard work and sacrifice, for Gomez her family’s presence in the audience had an even deeper meaning to her that day.
“I’m a first-generation student out of my entire family. So for my family to sit here and actually watch me cross the stage and for them to actually be here is an amazing feeling,” she said.
Both graduates already have their career plans in the works, with Gomez leaving for Austin in July to work with IDEA Academy Montopolis and start her master’s degree through the Relay Graduate School of Education, and Gallegos is interviewing at local schools.
On the other side of the stage, it was a moment of closure for their professors as well. In a year that pushed all levels of education online, for many instructors like Selma Yznaga from the Department of Counseling in the College of Education, the usual rapport of in-person education has been sorely missed.
The in-person ceremony offered a good chance for educators to show their pride in what their students have accomplished during this difficult time.
“Some of these students I’ve never met in person since I teach the end classes…so it will be really, really special to give a live hug,” she said.
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Check out other UTRGV in-person commencement stories from this weekend.