UI hosts in-person graduation celebration at Kinnick Stadium for spring 2021 graduates

After originally canceling an in-person graduation ceremony, the university will host a celebration for its spring 2021 graduates in Kinnick Stadium with COVID-19 safety measures.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

The statue of Nile Kinnick is seen outside of Kinnick Stadium on May 5, 2021.

Brady Osborne, News Reporter

After enduring a life-altering pandemic for more than a year, University of Iowa graduates will end their college careers where, for some, it began — at Kinnick stadium.

To reduce potential COVID-19 transmission, the UI opted for virtual commencement ceremonies and an opt-in in-person celebration at Kinnick Stadium, where the incoming undergraduate class traditionally poses in an iconic I formation each year.

The Kinnick celebration will take place on Sunday to cap a week of virtual commencement ceremonies. It will also be live-streamed online, and participating students can bring six guests.  More than 5,600 Hawkeyes will receive their diplomas online in virtual ceremonies beginning Thursday.

The stadium event isn’t a commencement ceremony, said Hayley Bruce, UI assistant director of media relations, and graduates won’t walk across a stage.

She said the event will follow the university’s COVID-19 mitigation protocols, which include wearing masks and social distancing. In relaxing its guidance for outdoor activities for vaccinated people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites mounting evidence that COVID-19 transmission risk is low in outdoor settings, especially for vaccinated individuals.

Bruce said the names of the graduates will flash across the screen at Kinnick until 3 p.m. when the program starts. The graduates, who will be sitting in the stands with their guests, will then stand and be honored as a group with their college.

Bruce said there will be limited capacity in the stadium, with a maximum capacity of 5,000 to 8,000 people, which is roughly 10 percent of the stadium’s 70,000-person capacity.

“Those planning this event felt that Kinnick Stadium would be a suitable location because it is a large outdoor facility,” Bruce said. “This provides an opportunity for graduates to celebrate all they have accomplished with a limited number of family and friends, while lowering the risk of spreading COVID-19.”

Johnson County Community Health Manager Sam Jarvis said events of this size are OK, if the proper mitigation measures are taken.

“Across the board, as we see cases trending downward and vaccines trending upward, we know that we’ll start seeing more events out in the community, varying in sizes — small, medium, to large — and we’re starting to get back to the new normal,” Jarvis said. “And so, with any event, and with any kind of activity, we’ll always be recommending that everyone take the precautions needed.”

Jarvis said having this experience in a safe way is good for the physical health, as well as the emotional and social well-being, of those in attendance.

“We recognized that folks can’t just stay indoors forever, and that there are many other aspects of health, whether it’s physical, social, or emotional that are important too,” Jarvis said. “The CDC has issued updated recommendations and they note that outdoor events are much safer.”

For many seniors, the Kinnick stadium event caps a year unlike any other in the University of Iowa’s history.

Marissa Brown, a UI student graduating with degrees in psychology and criminology who plans to go to Kinnick on Sunday, said she was initially worried she would not have closure on the year.

“I was actually really worried because I have been a Hawkeye fan basically my entire life, and I have been looking forward to graduation since freshman year,” Brown said.

Brown said this event means even more to her as she a first-generation college student, who will be the first in her family to graduate from college.

“Me and my best friend, we’re both first-generation college students,” Brown said. “So, this is kind of like the idea of making it for us, like, the first in our family to go to college.”