Amid dimmed lights and the echoing notes of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” about 500 students from the University of Florida College of Liberal Arts and Sciences spring class of 2021 prepared to walk across their graduation stage Saturday morning by swaying, singing along and shining their cellphone flashlights to the familiar tune.
They would soon become some of the first UF students to graduate in person since the fall of 2019 and join almost 10,000 total celebrated by the university over two weeks from April 29 through May 9.
“Graduates, you’ve gone the distance at a distance, and I can’t wait to see where you go and what you do next,” said UF President Kent Fuchs in his opening speech. “I’m so happy to see all of you in three dimensions. Congratulations.”
UF Commencement ceremonies in 2020 were held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In February, the university announced 2021’s celebrations would resemble the in-person ceremonies of years past — but with a few tweaks for safety.
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According to the university’s February announcement, attendance inside the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Exactech Arena is capped at 20% of the building’s capacity for each graduation ceremony. Masks and physically distanced seating are required, as well as tickets for both students and their allotted two guests per person.
Up to about 17,000 extra guests in Gainesville can watch live-streamed ceremonies across the street from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. An online view is also available through the UF website, commencement.ufl.edu, as well as the full event schedule.
Individual ceremonies were adjusted to leave out traditional hand shaking and the student entrance processional and exit recessional, but graduates could remove their masks temporarily while crossing the orange and blue stage for pictures, Fuchs announced at the start.
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One graduate, Shaday Robitaille, 22, attended with her parents, siblings and boyfriend. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and walked across the stage with her mom and dad watching from inside the O’Connell Center and the others from the stadium.
Her family came from Pembroke Pines to participate, Robitaille said. They planned to celebrate her achievement with lunch at the Cheesecake Factory before driving down to Orlando for a day at the Walt DIsney World Resort theme parks.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” she said after the graduation. “I wish they let more people inside, but I understand the whole 6-feet rule. Thankfully, [my family] had the option of the stadium.”
Isabella Robitaille, her younger sister, said she was happy to be there.
“It was pretty good,” she said. “We had to wait a while, but it was worth it to see my big sister graduate.”
Ciprian Silivestru, 39, was among the 500 graduates from the day’s first of three ceremonies. The Romanian immigrant earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science by taking classes online over five years while working full-time as an information technology support manager in South Florida.
Silivestru said he was emotional and pleased overall with the ceremony. It did feel a bit empty, he said, but was much more rewarding that graduating from home by watching a screen.
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“Taking into consideration that it’s a pandemic and is the first ceremony that is official in a face-to-face environment, I think they did fantastically.”
Silivestru said most of his family, like his mother, was unable to travel to the U.S. to attend and instead watched him walk through the online stream. His wife, Alina, and best friend, Marius, were his two in-person guests.
“This degree is a personal accomplishment for me that I just couldn’t finish in Europe,” Silivestru said. “I moved to the states, and this beautiful country offered me the flexibility to do a degree on my own terms.”