Pandemic pomp and circumstance: FIU gives graduating seniors socially distanced campus send-off

Panthers completing their last semester celebrated with a first-ever walk across an outdoor “commencement” stage in advance of virtual ceremonies on Dec. 13

With cheerleaders revving spirits and the deafening beats of mostly 1980s music blaring, FIU on Friday debuted a new rite of passage to make up for graduation traditions that have fallen by the wayside. Going beyond the drive-by car caravan that entertained folks the last time around, an amped up farewell celebration gave seniors a little something extra.

“I think I’ll remember this day for years to come,” said Olivia Mancebo beneath sunny skies as she stepped off a decorated commencement-style platform erected between the Blue and Gold garages at MMC. Wearing a mask and full graduation regalia, and just weeks from earning a bachelor’s degree in human resources management from FIU Business, she beamed in the face of an unconventional situation. “I thought it was very innovative that [FIU] came up with some sort of way for us to participate and feel some sort of normalcy. I thought it was a great experience overall, considering the climate of 2020.”

Mancebo was among the approximately 700 soon-to-be alumni who drove onto campus in a show of love for their university and a collective recognition of their accomplishments. The festivities helped the fall 2020 graduates and their families mark an impending milestone—commencement takes place on Dec. 13, online only—and substituted for some of the traditional graduation-day customs observed in pre-pandemic times.

Instead of tossing their mortarboards in unison against the soundtrack of shared whoops, students paraded in cars by the dozens, at scheduled half-hour intervals, through the main entrance on 107th Ave.

Instead of taking selfies with favorite professors on the plaza of the Ocean Bank Convocation Center, they stood for complimentary professional photos with Roary.

Instead of proudly shaking the hand of President Mark B. Rosenberg while a dean presents their diploma, they waved to the prez as he remained a socially distant six feet away and staffers doled out bags of FIU-branded pens, water bottles and hand sanitizer.

Chris Etty is graduating with a Master of Science in Civil Engineering.

The effort delighted students.

“I really appreciate what the school has done. It’s been a crazy year,” said Merlin Perez, who is soon to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of Arts, Sciences and Education. “I’m very happy that the school did this for us, and it kind of makes me feel good about our graduation.”

Emilio Santisteban will receive a bachelor’s in travel management from the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. He especially applauded Rosenberg’s presence at the event and noted the encouraging messages the university president has sent to students in recent months. “It was important to see him because he’s the face of this campus,” Santisteban said of one reason for attending. “He has our backs, so I wanted to be here and see him.”

Ana Garcia majored in chemistry and gladly accepted the chance for a bit of celebration with her mom, especially as plans for an after-graduation trip have been cancelled. She has worked in the forensic research lab of Provost and Executive Vice President Kenneth G. Furton and, like many who are graduating, has her eye on an advanced degree.

“I just keep thinking I want to continue my education, I want to stay at FIU,” Garcia said. “So, I’ll have my [in-person graduation] opportunity again.”

Josef Ghitis will shortly claim a doctorate of nursing practice in anesthesia from the Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing and Health Sciences and has a job waiting for him at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. His parents joined him on campus, and dad Jorge Ghitis put the experience of make-due commencement pageantry and virtual graduation into perspective.

“We’re living through hard times, and this is nothing hard compared to what could be,” he said of the awful circumstances that so many throughout the country are facing.

“So we’re grateful that we can breathe, that we can walk, that we can accompany him and that [all the graduates] did the journey they did and are ready for the next step in their lives. So it’s all good. It’s all positive. We are grateful that we can do this at this moment.”

Next month’s commencement ceremonies—10 in all, representing the various colleges and schools—mark the third time that graduates have been recognized via a virtual platform in 2020. FIU graduates more than 15,000 students annually. Visitors can watch here.

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