Commencement Spring 21

Graduates seated socially distanced at the first-ever commencement ceremony at Neyland Stadium on May 8, 2021.

For the first time in UT history, students from the Class of 2021 graduated on the field of Neyland Stadium. Traditionally, graduation ceremonies are held inside the Thompson-Boling Arena, but as the coronavirus pandemic continues to linger on, the university decided that an outdoor ceremony at the iconic stadium would be the best and safest option.

Tyra Haag, the director of news and information at UTK, talked about the procedures for the commencement ceremony in order to keep attendees safe. 

“Graduates [will] be divided among three seating sections on the field: Rocky Top, Smokey and Volunteer. As the ceremony proceeds, we [will] begin with the back rows and work our way to the front,” Haag said.

As with other campus events, all attendees were required to wear masks. Seating for family and attendees were limited and socially distanced. Faculty members were seated on the northern side of the field during the commencement, while the number of speakers and on-stage presenters were also limited as a precaution.

Before the event, social media posts from families and friends of graduates were shared on the jumbotron. Shortly after, students entered the field from the Lauricella Center and took their assigned seating. Music such as “Pomp and Circumstance” was pre-recorded and played during the commencement. 

To begin the graduation ceremony, Chancellor Donde Plowman gave a live speech to the Class of 2021. 

“You are the first class ever to have their degrees conferred at Neyland Stadium,” Plowman said.

As yet another graduation ceremony has arrived amid the pandemic, Plowman spoke on the difficulties of online classes and the stress on students to contend with COVID-19 on top of the usual stressors students face. She also touched on the uncertainty students face as they graduate from UT. 

“You are stepping into a world forever altered by the virus,” Plowman said.

However, Plowman then struck a more positive note, stating that the graduates will have an opportunity to help rebuild the world.

After Plowman, a recorded message from President Boyd -- who was unable to attend at the time -- played. Recorded messages from the deans and student representatives also played. 

The many recordings from speakers and further distancing precautions were continued reminders of the historical moment these graduates are in, but there is still hope for the future as times are changing, just as Plowman mentioned.

As the ceremony proceeded, students were called by name in order to come up to the stage. During this time, students were still kept distanced, and there was no handshaking on the stage. As students crossed the stage, they stopped at the ramp where a formal photo was taken. During this photo, students were allowed to temporarily remove their masks.

Once they had crossed the stage, graduates would enter the Wolf Kaplan center where they could take another photo. They would travel through the tunnel (where the Tennessee Vols would enter from) and re-enter the field to take their seats again.

Once the ceremony concluded, graduates moved their tassels to signify their graduation from UT.

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