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UNLV honors more than 5K graduates at virtual ceremonies

UNLV recognized more than 5,000 spring and winter graduates Tuesday during two virtual ceremonies — a format dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNLV initially delayed the spring graduation ceremony typically held in May in hopes of offering an in-person event at the Thomas &Mack Center. But in early October, the university announced it would move forward with an online format for both spring and winter graduations as the coronavirus continued to batter the state.

“We know a virtual ceremony is not a substitute for celebrating together in person, but it’s important that we continue to mark milestone moments like commencement,” UNLV President Keith Whitfield said during Tuesday’s ceremony for spring graduates. “This is particularly true for our graduates, who preserved through unprecedented circumstances to complete their degrees.”

The pandemic is temporary, he told graduates, “but your achievement will last a lifetime.”

More than 3,000 spring graduates — who finished their degrees seven months ago — and 2,200 winter graduates who wrapped up their studies this month were eligible to participate.

Segments of each ceremony — which lasted nearly two hours — were prerecorded, while others were live. The video was streamed from UNLV’s on-campus television studio in Greenspun Hall and aired on the university’s YouTube channel.

Graduation speakers

Ryan Romero and Cassie Soto, both UNLV alumni, emceed the graduation ceremonies. Romero, an admissions counselor at UNLV, graduated in 2017 with an undergraduate degree in hospitality and again in spring with a master’s degree in higher education. Soto, a studio host and multimedia journalist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is a 2017 UNLV alumna who earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism.

Whitfield, who started as UNLV’s president in late August, donned traditional graduation regalia during the Tuesday ceremonies.

“I know that the intention dating back to the spring was to have an in-person ceremony for our spring graduates and we very much wanted this to happen this month,” he told spring graduates. “It would have been my very first in-person commencement at UNLV and, believe me, I was looking forward to it as much as anyone. The current reality, though, is that we just couldn’t risk the health and safety of our graduates and their families and our many faculty and staff who work hard to make commencement happen.”

A UNLV graduation tradition is for the longest-tenured faculty member to lead the procession as the ceremony’s grand marshal. This year, the university posthumously recognized Felicia Campbell, who died in July of complications from COVID-19. She worked at UNLV for nearly 60 years.

The spring graduation student speaker was Santiago Gudiño-Rosales, who graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and minor in neuroscience. He was accepted to several medical schools and will soon make a final decision which one he will attend.

He told graduates that whatever “normal” will be in 2021, they can take confidence in what they have already accomplished.

“Normal is subjective, but our hard work and accomplishments are not,” said Gudiño-Rosales, a first-generation college student. “Although we are met with uncertain times, I am here to remind you — my fellow graduates — that we’ve already shown what we’re capable of.”

He said graduates are navigating a pandemic, social unrest and a polarized country, and are wondering how their personal and career goals will be impacted. He said it reminds him of how he felt when he started at UNLV five years ago.

His first weeks at the university were filled with constant uncertainty, he said. And after a costly year of attaining citizenship, his family of five — including his mother and siblings — was struggling and living in a one-bedroom apartment.

Gudiño-Rosales said he questioned how his family could pay their bills while he was in college and after a semester at UNLV, he told himself to give up. But then he heard a lecture from Marta Meana — later UNLV’s acting president for two years — who encouraged students to embrace uncertainty and that changed everything for him.

Winter graduation speaker Lili Equihua, who earned a master’s degree in couple and family therapy, told fellow graduates: “The university challenged us to be daring, diverse and different, and we stepped up to that challenge. We dared to pursue our education. We dared to graduate during a global pandemic.”

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a UNLV alumnus, told graduates that their knowledge, passion and commitment will help shape the state’s future.

“This class has truly embodied the Battle Born spirit of our great state by exemplifying perseverance and resilience in the face of historic obstacles,” said Sisolak, whose two daughters also graduated from the university.

Graduates also heard congratulatory video messages from notable alumni — including celebrity chef Guy Fieri, comedian and actor Brad Garrett, showman Wayne Newton and magicians Penn & Teller.

Garrett told graduates: “You did it during a pandemic, baby — not easy to do.” He finished his remarks by adding: “I’m wearing pants, I swear.”

Outstanding graduates

At each ceremony, UNLV recognized a handful of outstanding graduates, including spring graduate Akaisha Cook and winter graduate Alina Lindquist.

Cook, 25, graduated with honors and a 3.5 GPA from UNLV’s Honors College with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

She’s pursuing a two-year master’s degree in Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service — more specifically, in the Asian studies program — with full funding and guaranteed employment as a foreign service officer after graduation.

She just finished her first semester in the program but did her classes remotely from home because of the pandemic. She told the Review-Journal on Tuesday she plans to be on campus at Georgetown during spring semester and she’s excited about it.

Cook is a first-generation college student who started at UNLV in January 2015. While a student, she completed an internship with the Nevada governor’s office during the 2019 legislative session and studied abroad in China for one semester. She was president of UNLV’s NAACP Chapter during her sophomore year and was a volunteer for the Girls Who Code program.

Cook is one of 30 students across the country who are part of the 2020 Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program, administered by Howard University and funded by the U.S. Department of State. It prepares students from underrepresented groups for a foreign service career.

Cook was a first-generation college student who was raised in Las Vegas by her grandparents. “UNLV has been so good to me,” she said, noting it set her up for everything to come.

Cook finished the classes she needed to graduate during fall 2019, so she decided to go back to China to further her study of Mandarin. She was there in January until “everything started to blow up” with the pandemic, she said, when she returned to Las Vegas.

Lindquist, 24, graduated with honors and a 3.92 GPA from UNLV’s Honors College. She earned bachelor’s degrees in anthropology, art and art history.

“I’m excited that I’m completing this huge milestone,” she told the Review-Journal. She said it’s a little sad there couldn’t be an in-person graduation ceremony, but she’s glad the university offered a virtual one.

Lindquist, who grew up in Sparks, started at UNLV in fall 2015. Earning three degrees wasn’t in her initial plan.

“They slowly added on as I went through UNLV,” she said. “They all worked together so well, so it wasn’t like I was doing something totally opposite.”

Her remaining classes during pandemic upper-level art classes. She said that at first, she wondered how she was going to learn anything remotely, but noted that her professors adapted their curriculum well. “Obviously, it’s what we have to do because of COVID and people’s safety, but I definitely prefer in-person classes.”

During her time at UNLV, Lindquist got involved in Honors College activities and spent two semesters studying abroad — one in Italy and one in Thailand. She also became a certified yoga teacher and taught classes at UNLV’s Student Recreation and Wellness Center and other local studios.

Lindquist plans to apply for a graduate art conservation program, with the eventual goal of working at an art museum. In the meantime, she plans to work and take a couple of prerequisite chemistry classes.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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