UNR Graduates Encounter Mixed Emotions with Return of In-Person Commencement

Johanna Guerrero, Natalie Newman and Matt Hanifan investigate student concerns and challenges with the return of the University’s in-person commencement ceremonies, starting May 12, with a catchup for last year’s graduates.

Despite lingering Covid-19, UNR will hold an in-person commencement this year at Mackay Stadium. Photo edit made by Natalie Newman.

Pomp but Different Circumstances

“Honestly, I feel it’s just for show,” said Ash Cudiamat.

Graduation season is here with the pomp — but different circumstances as the University of Nevada, Reno continues with its plans for in-person commencement, a decision surprising many students who were expecting an online ceremony like the previous year. The in-person commencement ceremonies will be held for the 2021 graduates with a make-up ceremony for 2020 graduates. From COVID-19 concerns to last minute flights and travel for out-of-town students, graduates are looking ahead to their post-grad realities in an ongoing pandemic even as they get academic regalia ready for their long-awaited walk across the stage.

The class of 2021’s spring commencement will take place over three days, starting at 9 a.m. on Thursday, May 13. The class of 2020 will be log-jammed the day prior on May 12.

“It’s to make my family happy that there’s like some kind of official thing going on about it,” said Cudiamat, a spring 2021 graduate majoring in Computer Science and Engineering. “Personally, I don’t feel all that thrilled, I’m glad that university is over. In person commencement and all that stuff — it’s not how I would personally like to celebrate it. Like, you get a piece of paper, you walk with a bunch of other people who are also celebrating the same thing as you.”

Senior graduation pictures are a common tradition for students but Cudiamat is choosing not to have their senior pictures taken. They see the pictures as an added cost to the already pricey cost of graduation and they don’t feel particularly sentimental about taking pictures either. Despite this, Cudiamat still looks forward to celebrating with family and finishing their undergrad part of their life.

This photo was taken during the 1940 commencement ceremony. This ceremony was held in the Virginia street gym and had a graduating class of 108 students. University of Nevada, Reno Library archive collection website.

A 180 on Initial Plans

Nevada’s decision to hold in-person commencement was announced in March by University President Brian Sandoval. He first announced on March 10 that the University would not be holding a large or small commencement, instead originally planning to hold a virtual ceremony scheduled for Friday, May 14.

Nearly three weeks later, the plan took a 180. With the approval of the State of Nevada and Washoe County, Sandoval announced on March 29 that in-person commencement will take place with a virtual ceremony as the primary backup plan. This announcement came over a week after the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, announced their plans for a three-day in-person commencement ceremony.

“I am so extremely excited and thankful for the in-person graduation ceremony,” said Taylor Johnson, a spring 2021 graduate from the Reynolds School of Journalism. Johnson is a current resident of Las Vegas, Nev.

“Half of my college career I spent away at home miles from Reno. I couldn’t see my friends and professors, and people I’ve made bonds with,” she said. “It was really lonely and depressing but I made it through.”

Students have missed having classes in person but the in-person commencement ceremony allows them a chance to have one last traditional college experience where their accomplishments are formally recognized.

“I’m definitely glad the University planned an in-person event. Graduation is a really special thing, especially for college graduates,” Olivia Ali, another Reynolds School graduate said. “I’m really happy they figured out a way to make a ceremony work.”

Sara (left) poses with their twin sister Megan (right) for a Dr. Seuss-inspired graduation shoot. Grads 1 and 2 are looking forward to graduation. Sara will not be attending the in-person ceremony since their family can’t be there but their sister Megan will still be walking the stage. Picture taken by Rose Kompare and provided by Sara Bernardo.

Zoom vs. In-person Commencement and First in Family

Since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020, classes have transitioned to online using the video conference platform Zoom, which allows students and professors to conduct classes remotely. With the change to hold an in-person commencement ceremony, the university will still be holding an online ceremony. The in-person commencement ceremony will be optional for students with the online ceremony still required in that case.

“I am excited for in-person graduation,” said Emilie Rodriguez, a spring 2021 graduate of the Reynolds School of Journalism. “I think UNR made the right decision in allowing students to attend in-person if they choose. We’ve worked so hard, and spent a lot of time, money, and effort leading up to this day.”

When May 15 arrives, Rodriguez, a native of Sparks, Nev., will be the first person in her family to earn a Bachelor’s degree.

“While it’s an academic moment, it’s a personal moment for my parents knowing they raised a child capable of going to an institution like this, and succeeding,” she said.

Despite the late-March announcement — nearly six weeks prior to commencement — not everyone approved of the timing of the event.

“They didn’t give us enough time to prepare to have people come out because they did it like a month before graduation, maybe so less people would come,” said 21-year-old Sara Bernardo, a spring 2021 graduate majoring in Speech Pathology and Audiology. “I’m sure there are other people who, like [me], their family can’t come because they didn’t give enough warning to take time off work.”

Those who walked in the fall of 2020 will finally be able to get their in-person commencement they wished for.

“This is the culmination. This is the crown,” said Faith Thomas, a fall 2020 graduate with a Bachelor of the Arts in Journalism and a minor in Business.

“My parents are flying down, my grandma’s coming down, and my aunt is coming down for it. We’re gonna be taking that entire weekend just to celebrate because like they were super bummed that I couldn’t walk and could only graduate in a hotel room.

“I’ve worked for four years, and the best that they could give me was a virtual graduation so they’re very excited for it.”


Above in link, Reynolds School of Journalism graduates during Winter of 2020.

Thomas noted that she would have preferred in-person commencement for winter and spring graduates at the same time. She cited mishaps with the virtual commencement in December.

“The things that [the University] were supposed to do, virtually, they didn’t really do,” said Thomas. “They didn’t get half of the slides correct. My slide wasn’t even up there, my picture wasn’t up there that I had submitted. It was sort of just one thing out on top of one another.”

Others were not expecting an in-person ceremony and are finding conflicts with already existing plans.

“It’s me and my sister’s birthday, our graduation, and my mom’s 50th birthday all in the same week,” said Sara Bernardo.

Bernardo’s family planned a trip in the same week as the ceremony to celebrate their birthdays and decided to schedule the trip since the possibility of an in-person ceremony seemed unlikely at the time.

Ali highlighted that if the University waited any longer for its announcement, that “it definitely would have been a little more challenging to make arrangements, but luckily it wasn’t too bad.”

For students receiving master degrees or PhD’s the typical rituals associated with graduation, such as the process of being hooded by the chief marshal, is being held off due to health concerns. Graduate students are asked to arrive at their ceremony, “hooded and fully dressed in their commencement regalia” according to the University’s frequently asked questions webpage.

The first graduation class in 1891. A photo of Frank H. Norcross, Fred C. Bristol, and Henry Cutting, the three graduates of the 1891 class. (Photo from University of Nevada, Reno, Libraries)

Covid Fears and Vaccinations

Though vaccinations countrywide — and locally — are increasing, plans for the event will still have to follow health safety guidelines and protocols.

According to the University’s website, the different social distancing protocols that would be put in place would be:

  • Masks that cover the face and nose.
  • Assigned seats for guests for the duration of the event.
  • Maintain distance from other non-family related guests.

With that, the University is only allowing each graduate to attend with a maximum of four guests. The four guests could be seated together in one group or two groups of two. Each student must check out four tickets.

“If I didn’t have the vaccine, I just wouldn’t go,” said Cudiamat. “I wouldn’t feel safe enough to go but if I was already knowingly going to the in person ceremony and I didn’t have the vaccine, and I already signed up for it I guess that would be more motivation to get the vaccine just so that I don’t feel as unsafe.”

“I really think that they should have waited until June to do it,” said Thomas. “More people could be vaccinated and the people that are participating in the ceremony would be vaccinated too so that we can walk without any masks.”

Each ceremony throughout the weekend will be streamed on unr.edu/live for those who can’t attend in person.

“It’s sad that only four people in my life can come in-person,” said Rodriguez. “So many individuals have helped me get to graduation day and it’s sad I have to choose only four.”

Rodriguez cited that she is bringing her parents with a couple of family friends.

“Yes, we’re only allowed four guests, which works pretty well for me because I have a family of five,” said Ali. “My family isn’t too concerned, especially since the ceremony will be pretty distant.”

The last in-person graduation was held in 2019, where it awarded a record-high 3,201 diplomas, surpassing its mark of 3,137 that was set the year prior.

Will the sun shine through the ceremonies? Going indoor is not an option right now.

What happens if inclement weather occurs?

Speaking of 2019, the University had to move the ceremony into the Lawlor Events Center — home of the Nevada men’s and women’s basketball team — due to inclement weather when it rained during the commencement.

Given the different social distancing protocols in place, Lawlor Events Center, which usually holds over 11,000 in the stands plus the graduates on the court, isn’t an option. Mackay Stadium can seat over 30,000 during pre-pandemic conditions. The University will instead opt for virtual ceremonies on Friday, May 14, as an alternative option.

“If ceremonies must be cancelled due to extreme weather or emergency conditions, they will not be rescheduled,” Sandoval said in March via a press release.

“The only approved option for large gathering as a result of current COVID-19 public health guidelines is Mackay Stadium. Lawlor Events Center, given the socially distanced space limitations we are facing, is not an option. The ceremonies will be held as scheduled even in challenging weather such as rain or snow.”

He cited that they used Mackay Stadium because it could ticket graduates while following social distancing protocols. Ticketing each person who enters and exits allows for easier contact tracing. The Quad, where spring graduation would normally be held, did not follow those guidelines. Without ticketing, the university would have a harder time keeping track of people who may just walk by in the quad for contract tracing.

“I’m getting an in person graduation and honestly, if it starts to like rain or snow, hopefully, I’ll be prepared for that,” said Thomas. “I remember, the last time that this happened it was my sophomore year and they did have to move the graduations inside. Now, they can’t do that this year because of COVID so either one of two things is going to happen: we’re gonna have to bring our jackets or it might just be cancelled all together which will definitely be disheartening again.”

“I’m hoping they don’t cancel it,” said Thomas. “I’ve already taken the time off of work too so that’s a little bit of a hassle for me, because it’s like now I’m out of the money that I could have been making when I could have been at work.”

Listed are the different graduation attire prices, per the Nevada Wolf Shop in the Joe Crowley Student Union. Graphic made by Matt Hanifan.

Cost of Graduation, the basic attire can cost just as much as a textbook

The cost of graduation can be an added stress to a student and their family. Between the formal wear, shoes, cap and gown, tassels and announcements the prices can be costly after already paying for classes and books for four-plus years.

“I’m thankful enough for my parents being able to cover most of my expenses,” said Johnson. “Graduations are always extremely expensive from the application costing around $100 to smaller things like attire, cap and gowns etc”

In addition to these basic graduation costs, there are the added costs of booking travel, hotels, and incorporating food costs for the families and friends of students attending the ceremony in person. These expenses can add up quickly, especially when big groups are involved.

“I aim to spend as little as possible on the stuff that I have to buy in order to actually graduate,” said Cudiamat. “Already the tuition has been too much. The classes have been too much. I don’t want to have to pay more to get a piece of paper that makes me feel official.”

The cost of graduation has not been a burden at all,” said 2021 Reynolds School graduate Madeleine Chinery, whose family is from Los Angeles, Calif. “I’m currently in Reno and don’t need to travel, but travel costs were not high for my parents.”

A Rich Tradition

The University, once formerly named State University of Nevada, had only seven students at its first location in Elko. The school, founded in October of 1874, was considered more of a preparatory school than a University. In 1885, the University moved to Reno and by spring of 1886 had 75 students enrolled.

The graduating class of 1891 consisted of three people — Frank H. Norcross, Fred C. Bristol, and Henry Cutting — from the School of Liberal Arts. The commencement was held in the McKissic’s Opera House, which has since been remodeled into a hotel for over a century.

The Normal School, one of the colleges in the university at the time, promoted its first class in 1889. Later when the university had been renamed to its current name, the first official class to graduate from the University came in 1891. Pictures of the past commencement ceremonies can be found online dating back to 1899 starting with the Artemisia Yearbooks which has publications from 1899 to 2008 of the graduating classes.

More recently, in addition to concerns with graduation, students have faced many challenges in the transition to online classes. For graduating seniors, the impact of the pandemic has left a unique mark on their university experience. Students who have recently started college in the last year have had an almost entirely online experience but the recent graduating classes face an unprecedented future post-grad.

“It doesn’t feel tangible, like doing a lot of my classes online or in the safety of my own room. It’s hard for me to get out of the headspace of feeling like I’m just doing something casually at my house. It’s hard to take the classes seriously,” said Cudiamat.

Graduating in Most Challenging Times

“If you’re graduating during this, be proud of yourself,” said Thomas. “Graduation is no small feat in general but graduating with these extenuating circumstances is tough. You should be super proud of yourself. Honestly I didn’t think that I was gonna make it because, from the pandemic and all of my mental health issues being exacerbated I honestly didn’t think I was gonna make it to graduation but I’m so happy that I did. I hated school while doing it online … I’m strongly considering not going to grad school right now until all of this, all the pandemic is like cleared up. I want to be in a classroom and I want to learn.”

Many students have undergone both internal and external difficulties with their education due to the impact of COVID-19. Pair that with little variance in the change of scenery, and it could put a lot of wear-and-tear on students — despite learning from the comfort of their own home.

“With in person graduation, I’m able to go up and actually see everyone again before we all spread out and move to start the next chapter of our lives, ‘’ Johnson said.

The extenuating circumstances in which recent graduates have had to finish their college education makes the achievement all the more well-earned.

Reporting by Johanna Guerrero, Matt Hanifan and Natalie Newman for the Reynolds Sandbox

The Reynolds Sandbox showcases innovative and engaging storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab.

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Reynolds Sandbox

Reynolds Sandbox

Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.

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