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Ferocity and Fireworks

UVU creates spectacular drive-thru commencement for Wolverine Class of 2020 during pandemic.

By Brenna Russell | Photography by UVU Photo Staff

Ferocity and Fireworks

UVU shows tenacity with spectacular drive-in commencement for Wolverine Class of 2020 during the pandemic

By Brenna Russell | Photos by UVU photo staff

As aircraft from the UVU aviation program roared overhead, and again later as the first fireworks began to explode above the crowd, Candida Johnson couldn’t keep her emotions inside.

“When the planes flew over, I cried,” she says. “When the fireworks went off exactly as planned, I cried again.”

That evening in August, the long-delayed commencement ceremony for the UVU Class of 2020, was the culmination of months and years of hard work — not just for Johnson as a UVU employee and member of the commencement committee, but because she received her own bachelor’s degree in communications that evening.

With the stress of finals and the heavy responsibility of this historic event finally over, Johnson could not hold back her tears.

“It truly was a beautiful experience, and I am so thankful for all those who helped to make this crazy dream a fantastic reality,” Johnson posted later on her Facebook account.

For Johnson and thousands of other UVU graduates, the 2020 commencement celebration was a show of the trademark ferocity and strength that Wolverines are known for. And the fact that the event happened at all is a testament to UVU’s embodiment of those qualities.

The COVID-19 pandemic knocked everyone and everything out of its orbit. But UVU has a long history of overcoming adversity. Since its inception in 1941, in the midst of World War II, UVU has repeatedly responded to obstacles with innovative solutions.

Now, nearly 80 years after its humble beginnings, UVU continues to have that never-quit attitude. Today, with President Astrid S. Tuminez leading the way, UVU is growing and moving further forward than ever before.

In March 2020, when COVID-19 started to take hold and university administrators realized graduation could not happen as planned, many graduates became discouraged but still hoped for some sort of celebration. In response, President Tuminez firmly stated that she would not allow commencement to be completely cancelled.

“Graduation marks the completion of a remarkable educational journey and the celebration of a true achievement,” she said at the time. “It is a unique opportunity to celebrate years of hard work, persistence, and sacrifice by our students and all who supported them throughout their UVU years. We promise our Class of 2020 and their families and friends a memorable celebration.”

Under Tuminez’s direction and in response to the desires of the class of 2020, UVU’s commencement committee suggested that commencement be postponed until August. Over the next few months the committee — comprised of 50 representatives from departments across campus — came up with several contingency plans in case the Class of 2020 still couldn’t meet in person.

“Overwhelmingly, the graduates wanted UVU to hold commencement,” said Stephen Whyte, associate vice president of University Relations. “Their ideas and suggestions were creative and inspiring. While everyone wished we could have held commencement in April as originally planned, the commencement committee had an open mindset as they approached this unique

situation with a can-do attitude.”

After numerous meetings where ideas such as parades and video-conferencing broadcasts were discussed and thrown out, the committee settled on a few main concepts. They commissioned several focus groups and surveys to see what kind of event graduates would like, and by a staggering majority vote, the committee decided on drive-thru convocations held in separate parking lots for each UVU college and school, and a drive-in commencement ceremony held in the largest parking lots near the Roots of Knowledge windows and Fulton Library.

President Tuminez gives her address at commencement.

“It truly was a beautiful experience, and I am so thankful for all those who helped to make this crazy dream a fantastic reality.”
— Candida Johnson

Johnson’s passion came not only through years of experience in event planning, but also from being among the ranks of the Class of 2020. While helping execute the event “by the students and for the students,” Johnson was also working on several final papers and projects with tight deadlines. Working late into the night, some of her fellow staff members remember leaving the office with her still working hard at her desk.

With a vision in mind and the committee fully on board, UVU staff and administrators worked long and hard, planning the celebration down to the very minute. Every second and detail was thought out in depth. Roleplays and run-throughs and models of the stage were done. Communication throughout all of the committee members was strong as everyone became more and more excited for the big day.

Even with all the changes to the commencement celebration, UVU provided graduates with a Grad Fair, a one-stop shop with everything a grad needs to celebrate and look their best. Due to the pandemic, graduates were required to sign up for a time slot to attend the fair, and face masks and physical distancing were implemented to keep grads safe as they enjoyed music, balloons, signs, cake, and stations where they could purchase regalia, diploma frames, class rings, and memorabilia.

“Our purpose is to make graduation easy and fun and to give our graduates a glimpse into the alumni association and the benefits of staying connected to their alma mater,” said Kevin Walkenhorst, senior director of Alumni Relations.

Finally, the week of the event arrived and the pressure intensified. Commencement committee members managed the efforts of more than 200 employees, working around the clock. Representatives from nearly every area of campus helped wherever they could. They arranged parking lots, set up stages, finalized parking plans, put together video presentations, chose songs to play with the fireworks, and polished speech material. Everyone did their part to help out.

President Tuminez with mascot Willy

“The commencement committee had an open mindset as they approached this unique situation with a can-do attitude.”
— Stephen Whyte

Getting ready for the festivites.

“It was a collaborative effort,” Johnson says. “No one person could pull this off. This was a herculean effort that only came to fruition through the dedication of fellow Wolverines from all across campus. We worked together to make this event a special day commemorating the tenacity and hard work of all the graduates.”

On the day of Aug. 19, under a warm late-summer sun, the rock band The National Parks rehearsed their last songs, jumbotrons were hoisted into the air by telescopic handlers, and final arrangements were made. Everything was ready for the students.

Driving up to meet the dean of their college, students felt elated and overwhelmed with emotion and excitement. “I couldn't stop smiling the entire time I was at graduation and for hours after we left campus,” one student said.

“UVU puts students first, always,” attendee Amy King said. “The university went above and beyond to hold some sort of a graduation to celebrate its successful students. The atmosphere created from the night of events had me practically glowing green with UVU pride.”

Graduate Candida poses triumphant
Stephen Whyte celebrates.
Graduate adjusts regalia

“I think the graduates came to understand how important they are to us through our efforts to celebrate them appropriately,” Walkenhorst said.

At the end of the night, after the UVU Aviation flyover, an amazing performance by The National Parks, several emotional videos with stories of graduates, and an inspiring speech by commencement speaker Gail Miller, President Tuminez gave her final words to sum up this spectacular event.

“The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron said, ‘To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.’

“Storms will throw you out of your nest and your comfort zone. Be courageous. Never give up. Remember that you are gritty Wolverines. All of us here at UVU love you and are proud of you. We believe in your great potential, and we wish you success in your future endeavors. And now we would like to send off the Class of 2020 with a bang,” the UVU leader said.

Explosions overtook Tuminez’s final words and graduates and their families roared with cheers and applause as the dazzling display of fireworks danced over them.

Although it wasn’t the typical ceremony, the Class of 2020 had a spectacular commencement and convocation, displaying the typical grit and resilience for which the university has become known.

“I've been a proud Wolverine since being a student at UVU, and yesterday I was reminded once again of why,” King said.

“I think the graduates came to understand how important they are to us through our efforts to celebrate them appropriately.”
— Kevin Walkenhorst

Graduate gets diploma and some air

Fireworks finale at the ceremony

The work of UVU's photography team at commencement was recently featured by PhotoShelter, a photo organization platform which UVU uses. You can read more on the PhotoShelter Stories website