After official virtual ceremony, UCCS graduates glad to get in-person photo op, friend fix on campus

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“I did it!” Chandler Strickland yelled as she skipped down a sidewalk Monday morning, cheered on by 170 professors and other staff members at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Near the end of the “Walk of Applause,” Strickland heard, “Woo-hoo, good job, baby girl!”

That was the voice of her mom, Tammy Strickland, who traveled from a small Alaskan island to Colorado Springs last week with six family members to see some pomp of the still-altered circumstance for the class of 2021.

She was one of just a few parents at the school’s new “Picture on the Plaza” event.

“I couldn’t miss being here physically,” Tammy Strickland said. “She’s our first to graduate; it’s a really big deal for us.”

Held outdoors on the central square of the campus, the occasion’s sole purpose was to honor and recognize graduates, said Chancellor Venkat Reddy.

For the second year, the COVID-19 pandemic led to UCCS’ graduation not being in-person.

During Friday’s virtual commencement, administrators conferred 1,624 doctoral, master’s and baccalaureate degrees — marking the school’s largest class ever.

On Monday, more than 500 mask-clad students, most in black robes, caps and tassels, queued up by colleges, heard their names and degrees called over the loudspeaker, walked by the mountain lion mascot sculpture to receive a diploma jacket and had their photos taken with deans. They then paraded past clapping employees.

The event was livestreamed online, and there were few onlookers.

But the Stricklands, like others, said they initially thought this year’s graduation would be in-person, after school leaders sent an email in January saying they were hoping to have a live ceremony. So they bought plane tickets.

An email sent in February said the school didn’t have the capacity to conduct an in-person graduation, so the ceremony would be recorded and released online May 14 in a video presentation.  

«Early on, campus leaders were making plans for multiple scenarios, so they could implement the best plan, as the pandemic unfolded,» said UCCS spokesman Mark Belcher. «They never said it will be in-person and in the end decided on the hybrid model.»

A campus committee created the idea of adding an in-person touch with the photo opportunity.

“It was definitely different, but I’m glad we had some type of event so I could catch up with my friends and see them at least one more time,” said graduate Lilly Valenzuela.

2021 Colorado Springs-area graduations | List

The event meant a lot to Abdul Kamara, an Army veteran who received a health sciences degree in strength and conditioning.

He was supposed to graduate in 2013, but life’s circumstances instead led him to join the military in 2012.

Kamara’s mom died recently and always wanted him to complete his degree.

“I’m doing this for her,” he said.

Some graduates, like Ashton Roger, hadn’t been on campus in a few months, since the majority of classes were held remotely this academic year.

“It’s nice to be recognized for more than five seconds on a screen,” he said of the event.

He had a joint party with one of his buddies and their families on Friday to watch the commencement online.

“We made a fun time of it,” he said.

Hanna Felice also had relatives come in for her graduation.

“We celebrated at my house Friday,” she said. “It was kind of disappointing. I wanted something more, like other schools are doing in-person graduations. I think they could have done it here.”

CU campuses in Boulder and Denver also offered hybrid commencements this year, with the official commencement being virtual and then an extra in-person option.

Felice didn’t want to participate in the Picture on the Plaza. She already had professional photos taken and didn’t know what the event would be like.

“I thought, ‘meh,’” she said.

But she changed her mind Monday. While standing with her friends who did participate, Felice said she wished she had dressed in her gown and joined in.

“This is kind of cool,” she said, looking around at the balloons, signs and many chances to mug for a camera.

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