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This weekend’s spring commencement ceremonies will hold an extra significance for at least a couple University of Texas Rio Grande Valley graduates.

Thanks to the pandemic upending public events that included high school graduations, some UTRGV graduates walked a stage to publicly receive a diploma for the first time Friday in Brownsville.

“When COVID happened, I was at high school when it occurred, so this is my first actual graduation,” said Summer Sosa, of Brownsville, who graduated high school with the university’s Mathematics and Science Academy and on Friday received a bachelor’s of biology with honors. “I’m excited to share it with my family and friends who supported me.”

Next to her sat Nataly Castro, of Brownsville, also an MSA graduate who also attended her first live graduation ceremony.

“It’s like a celebration of the past four years, especially with COVID,” said Castro, who received a bachelor’s of science in biology. “It’s like she was saying, it’s our first time getting a real graduation because I was also in high school when 2020 happened. That’s when I graduated high school, and we didn’t get a graduation—it was just cut off. So this is the first time I’ll actually get to experience this and it’s going to be so rewarding because, you know, we haven’t had this before.”

With large screens and a stage outside the campus library, graduates and faculty sat Friday in rows across a campus lawn according to their colleges under a harsh afternoon sun for a commencement ceremony that began at 4 p.m. Farther back, crowds of families and friends gathered at viewing spots, some beneath an assortment of handheld umbrellas and others beneath shade trees and along the water feature welcoming arrivals to the campus.

Melany Gongora, of Mission, received a masters of business administration with a concentration on business analytics to further her current career as a business analyst.

“Besides it being hot, it means a lot to be here and celebrate all the hard work it took to complete the program,” Gongora said.

A second wave of graduations followed at 7 p.m. at the same location.

UTRGV President Guy H. Bailey and Executive Vice President and Provost Janna Arney both pre-recorded their addresses, at least for the first ceremony.

“What an achievement for you and for your families,” Bailey said in the video. “Remember, it’s not just you. It’s your mom and your dad, your brother and sister who helped you out, your spouse, your significant other. Give them a hug. Let them know that this is their degree as well as yours. With this degree, you’ll make your life better, but you’ll make the lives of all those around you better as well.”

Arney spoke of the challenges students faced over recent years, even to find the motivation to continue.

“But you did it,” Arney said. “The significance of your journey is not only determined by the destination, it’s also measured by the life experiences you have had along the way. Those experiences have prepared you for this next chapter of your lives. However, today is about celebrating. Celebrating your hard work, your dedication, and your resiliency with those who have loved and supported you throughout your journey, every step of the way.”

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s spring 2022 commencement started with those two ceremonies at the Brownsville campus. Commencement ceremonies continue from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday at the Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg.

Across two days, graduates were recognized from the College of Fine Arts, College of Engineering and Computer Science, College of Education and P-16 Integration, Mathematics and Science Academy, College of Sciences, Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Enterpreneurship, School of Medicine, School of Nursing, School of Social Work, College of Health Professions, and College of Liberal Arts.

Echoing Bailey and Arney, other speakers acknowledged that the graduates had help—from faculty, from family, from friends, and from other sources of support.

As “Pomp and Circumstance” played, a blue merle Australian shepherd named Fiji lay on the grassy lawn between rows of chairs. The 3-year-old therapy dog would walk the stage with JoAnna Lee Hernandez, of Brownsville, who received a bachelors of business administration in accounting.

“This day is a big accomplishment, and having Fiji here with me makes it even better because she was able to help me finish,” said Hernandez, whose moments of anxiety are assisted by her companion. “It’s hard, just my anxiety alone. But with Fiji’s help, she calmed me down, she was there with me the whole time, and it made this happen here (today).”