Class of 2021 recognized at in-person Celebration of the Graduates

Thousands of graduates and their families flocked to Kinnick Stadium on Sunday afternoon to celebrate the class of 2021.


Jerod Ringwald

A graduate raises her cap to celebrate during the University of Iowa’s celebration of graduates Sunday, May 16, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium. (Jerod Ringwald/The Daily Iowan)

Chris Werner, Sports Reporter

With a final Iowa Wave and recognition ceremony, the University of Iowa class of 2021 graduated and became Hawkeye alumni.

Thousands of members of the 2021 graduating class, along with their families and friends, gathered at Kinnick Stadium for the in-person Celebration of the Graduates event Sunday afternoon.

The university put the event on its schedule in mid-March after previously deciding against any in-person graduation proceedings for the second year in a row.

Prior to the 2020 spring graduations, which were held virtually because of COVID-19, commencement ceremonies had traditionally taken place either in Hancher Auditorium or Carver-Hawkeye Arena rather than the UI’s football stadium. 

Nearly all of the commencement ceremonies have taken place virtually this spring, as well.

Although the Celebration of the Graduates was not a commencement ceremony, instead a way for the graduates to come together to be recognized for their achievements, Lexi Kapanka, who graduated with a degree in public health, said Sunday’s ceremony felt like a victory for the student body. 

“I think it was important that there was an in-person opportunity,” Kapanka said. “I think it’s a win for students who had to be online all year.”

Mary Herke, who graduated with a liberal studies degree, said she was happy to have an opportunity to celebrate with other people rather than just recognized with her name flashing across a screen.

“It feels great,” Herke said. “It feels exciting and thrilling to at least be in-person with a bunch of other classmates and be around other people since it’s been such a rough year.” 

The event included speeches from several UI administrations and student speakers, including outgoing UI President Bruce Harreld and vice president for Student Life Sarah Hansen.

Hansen gave opening remarks and introduced the first student speaker, former Undergraduate Student Government President Connor Wooff.

Wooff praised his fellow graduates, reminding his classmates that over the past 14 months, they had “overcome some of the greatest barriers imaginable” on their way to graduating.

“Just as we reached the final chapter of our Iowa experience, our worlds were turned upside down by this global pandemic,” Wooff said. “Our bedrooms became our classrooms, no more filling the stands of Kinnick or Carver. No longer could we celebrate our Hawkeye pride at hallmark events like homecoming… It is often said that through crisis comes out character, and while this pandemic has cast a shadow over all of our lives, the strength of the Hawkeye spirit has shone through.”

Graduate and Professional Student Government President Mackensie Graham gave a speech, as well, calling those in the stands the “evolving academics, artists, and advocates of a better tomorrow.”

“The one thing that no one can ever take away from you is your education,” Graham said. “So take this degree and go out and break down the barriers. Go out and build the bridges. Take everything you’ve learned here and take your heart of black and gold and if you cannot find a way, forge your own.”

After the graduates and their family and friends participated in one last Iowa Wave toward the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital, Executive Vice President Kevin Kregel asked those in attendance to rise and be recognized, going down the list of each of the 12 UI colleges before introducing President Harreld.

Harreld thanked faculty, staff, students, and the UI community for working together to get through the pandemic. He called for students to stand and recognize their friends, family, and mentors for helping them get to graduation.

“Remember in life to pay it back,” Harreld said. “Somewhere in time, you will find a friend, or family member, or maybe just someone you meet, who needs your help. Help them out. Help others. Our mission here is pretty simple: it’s for you to go forth, graduates, and do what you’ve been taught to do. Go forth and make our world a better place. We’re counting on you and we know we can place our trust in you. Go forth and make a difference in the world.”

The speech at Kinnick Stadium marked Harreld’s final day as president. Harreld announced his retirement in October and said he would stay on as long as it took to find a replacement.

The search for a new president wrapped up at the end of April, when the state Board of Regents selected Barbara Wilson, executive vice president and vice president of academic affairs at the University of Illinois system, to be the UI’s next president.

In stepping down earlier than his contract, extended until 2023 just a year prior, stipulated, Harreld is foregoing millions in deferred compensation. As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, he told the regents he hopes those funds will be earmarked for a project to move the cultural centers to the center of campus.

Over his five-year tenure as president, Harreld has brokered a $1.1 billion public/private partnership agreement, has overseen campus during the pandemic, and appointed three temporary administrators into permanent roles: Kregel into the executive vice president and provost role, current Executive Officer of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Liz Tovar, Executive Vice President and Provost, and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Sara Sanders.

“I don’t believe in goodbyes,” Harreld said. “I believe in, ‘See you arounds.’ This world is all interconnected, so I’m not going to say goodbye… Before I turn the podium over, I’d like to have us yell the two most important words in the English language: go Hawks.”

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