Shalala shaking up graduation

Engineering students in 1988 toss confetti, snap pictures and blare bullhorns as their UM careers culminate in graduation. Beth Keiser // The Miami Hurricane Archives
Engineering students in 1988 toss confetti, snap pictures and blare bullhorns as their UM careers culminate in graduation. Beth Keiser // The Miami Hurricane Archives

It’s graduation. Students’ names are called and they walk across the stage of the BankUnited Center. They receive their diploma and shake President Donna Shalala’s hand while their families cheer from their seats.

For students at the University of Miami, this scene is the ultimate goal of four years of hard work. Yet graduation ceremonies were not always run as they are today.

“Commencement used to be held out on the university green, by the library,” said Allison Gillespie, the director of commencement. “You’d have all the graduates out there, and parents and guests all over the place.”

The event was especially uncomfortable for May graduates, who had to suffer through the heat and humidity in their black caps and gowns. The spring graduation ceremonies were held all at one time which prevented students from being individually called up to receive diplomas and nobody shook the hand of the president.

One year, it rained. But there were no tents or back up plan.

“You just got wet,” Gillespie said.

When UM President Donna E. Shalala first started at the University of Miami, she was determined to overhaul graduation ceremonies.

“It was one of the first things she changed, even before she started on her first day,” Gillespie said. “She wanted every student’s name called out, and she wanted to shake every student’s hand.”

Shalala also broke up commencement into four separate ceremonies by school for the spring graduation. This way, each student is called up individually by name to receive their diploma and shake the hand of the president. Last semester she did not shake hands because of H1N1 concerns, but this year she will continue the tradition.

“This year we are going to have hand washing stations, I hope students take advantage of it,” Shalala said.

Another change implemented was the lift of limitations on how many guests can attend the graduation. Shalala herself came from a large family, and couldn’t imagine picking and choosing between family members.

“I came from an ethnic family. 40 people came to my graduation. Students should be able to bring whomever they want,” Shalala said.

The average amount of guests per graduate is 7.2.

“We had one young woman one year who had 27 or 28 people that came,” Gillespie said. “She was a first generation college student, had broken some barriers, and her whole family came to this.”

Seniors graduating in December can’t imagine commencement without receiving their diploma from Shalala herself.

“I guess I assumed that we would shake her hand, I took it for granted,” senior Stephen Ruotsi said. “It’s a good thing that we get to; I didn’t realize that ever wouldn’t be the situation.”

“I think it’s a good move by [Shalala],” senior Aaron Gerger said. “It makes the graduation ceremony more special.”

With only days to go before their commencement ceremonies, Ruotsi and Gerger are busy planning their graduation celebrations.

Gerger expects 10 family members. Ruotsi expects four or five.

“I’m hoping the family dog will come, but I don’t think that’s feasible,” he said. “I don’t think they let dogs inside the BankUnited.”

Dogs in attendance seem to be the only impossibility when it comes to commencements at the University of Miami. Shalala’s overhaul of the way graduation used to be has made the process more meaningful, enjoyable and accessible.

“This is a celebration of your achievement,” Gillespie said. “And commencement is our gift to you.”

Graduation will be held Thursday, Dec. 17 at 10 a.m. All eligible seniors will graduate at the same time except for those receiving Miller School of Medicine M.D. degrees.

Nina Markowitz may be contacted at nmarkowitz@themiamihurricane.com.