More than two hours before the slated start, students and families were creating long lines outside UNLV’s Thomas &Mack Center.
They were waiting to watch more than 2,000 students don red gowns, sing along to the alma mater, flip their tassels from one side to another and become alumni.
Tuesday’s commencement inside Thomas &Mack was the first time acting President Marta Meana presided over a graduation ceremony in her new role.
“I’m super-excited. This has always been my favorite day of the year,” Meana said. “It’s very moving.”
The university’s 55th winter commencement ceremony included approximately 2,146 undergraduate and graduate students who recently completed their studies. Graduates ranged in age from 20 to 72 and came from 33 states, the District of Columbia and 49 foreign countries, according to officials. About 85 percent of students call Nevada home, and 59 percent of the graduates are female.
Among the newly minted graduates was John Laceda.
After four-and-a-half years, Laceda walked away from UNLV with a degree in kinesiology.
“I feel pretty good. I got it done,” he said. “It took a little longer than I wanted it to.”
Laceda, who moved to Las Vegas from the Philippines at age 7, said he plans to work for the next year-and-a-half and save money before applying to UNLV’s physical therapy master’s program.
The 23-year-old ducked out of the ceremony a bit early to beat traffic so he and his family could have a celebratory dinner.
A degree in international business also came a little later for Monika Chaney, who said she took a break in her studies to be sure she was on the right degree path.
She has no current plans to further her education, and is on the hunt for a job.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” the 24-year-old said.
In addition to honoring four “outstanding” graduates, Meana also recognized Ruby Duncan, who earned an honorary doctorate from the university for her significant contributions to the community. Duncan, who arrived in Las Vegas in 1953, is the founder of Operation Life Community Development Corporation.
“When they told me, I didn’t know how to act,” the 86-year-old said before the ceremony. “I just started to cry.”
Founded in 1972, Duncan’s organization was heralded as one of the nation’s most effective anti-poverty programs and has been recognized as the first federally funded community development corporation in the country that was organized, controlled and operated by low-income women, according to Duncan’s biography.
As a low-income woman herself with seven children to raise, Duncan remembers being frustrated to see no path for herself out of poverty. She was unable to work because of a medical condition.
“I can walk, and I can talk,” she said. “That’s how it all got started.”
Duncan’s work has received recognition nationwide, including a White House visit in 1977 with President Jimmy Carter to discuss how to improve national jobs programs. Duncan retired from her leadership position in Operation Life because of health concerns but has stayed active in the community.
A Clark County school is named in her honor. She was named a Distinguished Nevadan by the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents in 1998, and she received the Margaret Chase Smith Award from the National Association of Secretaries of State in 2008.
During the ceremony, four outstanding UNLVstudents were honored by acting President Marta Meana.
— Kevin Ashi, a founder of the Latino Pre-Med Student Association, earned a bachelor of science in biology with a minor in French. Ashi’s future plans include medical school and eventually, a role with the World Health Organization.
— Schetema Nealy is the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D in chemistry from UNLV. She is graduating with a 3.9 grade point average and she is a mother of two, Naima and Emerson.
— Glahnnia Rates overcame a crippling medical condition to earn a bachelor of science in public health. She plans to continue her education at UNLV in the public health master’s program, with a concentration in epidemiology and biostatistics.
— Surbhi Sharma earned a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology with a 3.8 GPA. She served for two years on the Graduate and Professional Student Association as the School of Life Sciences representative before she was elected president of the organization. She is now working as a fellow in UNLV’s Neurogenetics and Precision Medicine Lab.