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University Of Tampa Students Planning Their Own In-Person Graduation

Three young students stand in front of a brick wall and smile at the camera.
Courtesy Emma Stange, Jacie Steele and Allison Clark
Emma Stange, left, Jacie Steele, middle, and Allison Clark, right, seniors at the University of Tampa, are the heart of planning for an alternate, in-person graduation ceremony for about 2,000 students. The official, university-sponsored ceremony will be virtual.

The University of Tampa is planning a virtual commencement ceremony for about 2,000 students in May. But three seniors are spearheading an effort to plan their own alternate, in-person graduation ceremony.

With more than two million people completely vaccinated in Florida, and large-scale events like the Super Bowl not leading to a large spike in coronavirus cases, students are asking, why can’t seniors walk across the stage for their diploma?

At the University of Tampa, it started with a petition — a plea to the private college and Gov. Ron DeSantis for students to have an in-person ceremony, not the virtual one planned for May.

Jacie Steele, the senior behind the petition, said the pandemic has already stolen a lot of the memories they would have made.

"We had so many things taken away from us, so many senior moments that we looked forward to for entire lives. And I thought, if I at least get to walk across the stage, if I at least get to walk and get my diploma, it'll all be worth it."

She questioned why the university required some in-person classes, but couldn’t let students walk across the stage outside. In emails to some students, UT said they didn’t want to risk an outdoor event that could be canceled by inclement weather.

That wasn’t a good enough answer for Steele’s friend, Allison Clark, who started a GoFundMe for an alternate in-person ceremony. The students say they've already reached out to potential venues, keynote speakers and photographers. They're just trying to raise the money and finalize the details.

“To be honest, at first, it was a little bit of a joke of, ‘Let's house our own graduation. We can do that.’ And then we all talked about it. And the Facebook pages started growing and growing, and more and more parents started getting involved,” Clark said.

As of Monday afternoon, they’ve raised $1,075 of a $6,000 goal. The petition has garnered 3,550 signatures.

Senior Emma Stange said she has emailed about half of the 2,000 students expected to graduate this semester, and has been met with enthusiastic responses about the alternate graduate ceremony.

“It's incredible to see how many students and parents want what we three want,” Stange said.

The University issued a statement to WUSF when asked about the alternate ceremony:

“The University is aware that there is discussion about – and a GoFundMe campaign for -- an in-person, alternative commencement event. This event is not supported nor sponsored by The University of Tampa, and it will not officially confer degrees from the University. As such, we are unable to ensure that this independent event follows the University’s Spartan Shield Health Safety Plan or CDC regulations. Nor can we ensure the event will accurately represent or reflect the mission of the University.”

Steele said their event will require facial masks, social distancing, following venue guidelines and rules, limited capacity, temperature checks upon arrival, sanitation enforcement, and completion of safety waivers prior to event arrival from all participants.

The students said the university did not send a campus-wide email addressing the commencement or their concerns, only returning responses to individual students. They also accused UT of deleting their comments and questions on the school’s social media pages, like Facebook.

“All these students and parents want is an authentic and honest answer as to why they refuse to host the ceremony for us. And all we get in response is a scripted excuse,” said Stange.

All three students said that while they feel it’s unlikely the university will change its mind and hold an in-person commencement ceremony, they won’t be attending the official event.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.
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