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‘Mixed emotions’: Just 2 weeks after shooting, UNLV celebrates winter graduation

Nearly two weeks after a gunman killed three faculty members and seriously injured a fourth on campus, thousands of UNLV graduates are celebrating earning their degrees.

The university held two graduation ceremonies for undergraduates Tuesday at the Thomas &Mack Center. It will recognize graduate degree recipients on Wednesday.

Tuesday’s graduation ceremonies were the first since the Dec. 6 shooting on the UNLV campus inside Beam Hall, which houses the Lee Business School.

At the beginning of the noon ceremony, Executive Vice President and Provost Chris Heavey said: “Today, we gather here with hearts that are heavy with mixed emotions.”

He said they were coming together to celebrate the achievements of graduates, but they also carry the weight of profound sadness and loss.

Less than two weeks ago, UNLV experienced a tragic shooting on its campus that claimed the lives of three beloved faculty members and another remains hospitalized, Heavey said.

“They were educators, mentors and friends who dedicated themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of our community,” he said. “Their legacy will be forever imprinted upon the fabric of our institution.”

There was a moment of silence to honor and remember the three faculty members who were killed: Jerry Cha-Jan Chang, Patricia Navarro Velez and Naoko Takemaru.

The university decided to proceed with traditional in-person graduation ceremonies this week. But students who aren’t comfortable participating have the option of walking in May instead, and the ceremony was also livestreamed online.

About 2,300 students are earning a degree this winter.

For this week’s three graduation ceremonies, enhanced security measures are in place at Thomas &Mack Center, and mental health resources are available on-site.

‘I don’t know what to feel’

While the student section was only half full at the graduation, the lower deck of audience seating was packed during the noon ceremony on Tuesday.

Some graduating students said they had mixed feelings graduating so soon after the mass shooting on campus two weeks ago.

“I don’t know what to feel,” commencement speaker and graduate Matheu Nazareno said before the ceremony began. “I feel excitement. I feel a little bit, of course, of somber and sadness. But at the same time, I’m excited to help celebrate this moment with all of my peers.”

Biochemistry graduate Quang Nguyen also said he felt a mixture of somber and excited feelings as he walked into the venue.

Nguyen gave his condolences for the shooting two weeks ago and said the professors who died on Dec. 6 would’ve wanted to see the class graduate on Tuesday.

“I think up there in heaven, or wherever they are, they’re gonna look down here and they’re gonna see that we made it and they would want nothing else,” Nguyen said.

‘Not let fear control our lives’

Students at the commencement were split on how they felt about the school holding the ceremonies so soon after the shooting.

Elementary education graduate Lea Carr, and parents Scott and Dianna Carr, said they were happy that the shooting did not cancel or delay the commencement.

“I didn’t think it was gonna happen,” Lea Carr said, “but I’m happy they made the decision to go forward and still celebrate the fall 2023 graduates and not let fear control our lives.”

Nguyen was also glad the commencement was held on Tuesday, but he said it was best for planning purposes.

Nguyen said he thought the best idea is what UNLV went with, which is to allow students to participate in either the winter or spring commencement.

But Nazareno said he personally would’ve wanted more time to process the shooting before graduating.

“It’s a hard thing to say, but personally, for me, I would’ve wanted a little bit more time,” Nazareno said. “The way that finals kind of just got canceled. It was just a lot of was happening once for me to just say like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m still about to graduate this week.’”

While he wished he had a little more time before graduation, Nazareno also commended the university for still providing “enough security and enough support” to help students still have a good time.

Nguyen, Carr and Carr’s parents all said that UNLV made them feel safe at the event.

‘Joy and sorrow’

During a noon ceremony Tuesday, graduates were recognized in business, education, engineering, hospitality and sciences degree programs.

Nazareno, who graduated with a degree in biological sciences, plans to apply to medical school and become a physician.

He said their hearts are heavy by recent events that have shaken the UNLV community, but that in the face of adversity, they’ve shown what it means to be “UNLV strong.”

Nazareno said their strength isn’t just in their individual accomplishments, but a collective ability to overcome.

Graduates began their college journey by navigating nearly two-and a-half years of online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic — an experience that taught them resilience and adaptability, he said.

President Keith Whitfield said that at the intersection of “joy and sorrow,” and “celebration and mourning,” it was with “heavy hearts and yet unwavering resolve” that participants were gathering for the graduation ceremony.

“We find ourselves grappling with emotions that are complex, difficult to articulate and even more challenging to comprehend,” he said.

On one hand, it was a time to honor the exceptional achievements of an outstanding group of graduates, Whitfield said.

“On the other hand, our community bears the weight of an unimaginable tragedy that has left an indelible mark on our hearts and on our campus,” he said.

Whitfield acknowledged that for many, being at the graduation ceremony is “not without challenges,” also noting some graduates and their loved ones may be watching from home.

He told attendees that it’s OK not to be OK.

“Grief follows no prescribed timeline and healing is a journey unique to each individual,” Whitfield said. “In choosing to move forward with our commencement ceremonies, we do so with a shared conviction that we cannot allow the heinous actions of one individual to overshadow the collective achievements and the dreams of our graduates.”

Board of Regents Chairman Byron Brooks congratulated graduates and expressed support for Whitfield’s decision to hold commencement ceremonies.

“There are incredible challenges this institution has faced this month, and I am certain that some of you are dealing with a range of complex emotions,” he said.

He said that graduates’ presence at the ceremony shows the characteristics of tenacity and fortitude that demonstrate future success.

Student and faculty recognition

Whitfield is recognizing six graduating students this week for their academic and community accomplishments:

— Godson Adjovu (Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering)

— Mary Blankenship (M.S. in chemistry)

— Felicia Jong (B.A. in psychology and minor in neuroscience)

— Michael Mucthison (B.A. in philosophy — law and justice concentration)

— Chloe St. George (B.S. in general science — honors)

— Fae Ung (B.S. in secondary education, math)

Whitfield honored St. George and Ung during the noon ceremony.

St. George is an Honors College student who joined more than 10 student organizations — as well as created her own — and a community volunteer who served for more than 250 hours and raised more than $25,000 for charities.

Ung is an aspiring math teacher who strives to make a positive impact on the next generation, and already has a job lined up after graduation, Whitfield said.

He has a reputation at UNLV for asking for feedback on how to improve his teaching skills.

Math professor Satish Bhatnagar, who marks 49 years with the university this year, was also recognized.

It’s a tradition for one of UNLV’s longest-serving tenured faculty members to be invited to lead the procession of the “platform party” while carrying the university mace.

Contact Mark Credico at mcredico@reviewjournal.com. Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com. Follow @julieswootton on X.

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