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Soon-to-be graduate frustrated by virtual commencement ceremony for UTSA

The senior is questioning why football games can have fans in the stands while parents of grads are left watching on a laptop.

SAN ANTONIO — Taylor Gould is nearing the end of her college journey. With her father's help, the 26-year-old was able to pursue her passion for anthropology at UTSA.  

"He pushed me," Gould said. "I always imagined us kind of walking the stage together."

Kenneth Gould joined the Army Reserves at 40 years old so his only child could go to college. He served one active duty tour in Iraq.

"I got full funding and that is really the sole reason I went," Gould said. "The best gift that he gave me was college."

While Gould was attending school, however, her dad got sick. He died two years ago from esophageal cancer at 50 years old. She said it was his only wish that she got her degree. 

Gould will be the first in her family to do so. 

In honor of her father, she continued to work hard to raise her GPA and graduate cum laude.  

"It's hard to get all those accomplishments and then not really be able to share them with the person who inspires you the most," Gould said. "It was really all for him, all of it."

Now Gould is dealing with another loss: the commencement ceremony she dreamed of.

"It's hard to have the culmination of my experiences at UTSA be like a PowerPoint," Gould said. "It's hard to end on that kind of note after so many years of working toward this."

Due to the pandemic, USTA will hold a virtual commencement ceremony in December. Gould will be part of the second round of 2020 graduates who won't get to accept their degree in-person. 

"It's more than just walking the stage," Gould said. "There's just no amount of virtual Zoom meetings and virtual ceremonies that are going to make up for that."

Ambika Mathur is the chair of the UTSA Commencement Committee. While they'd rather host the event in-person, she said they must put health and safety first.

"We're very empathetic. We're just as disappointed," Mathur said. "Just like family and friends, staff and faculty have worked with the students so closely, so we really all want to celebrate together."

Gould is frustrated. She thinks university leaders had enough time to think of other options to make an in-person event work.

"We watched high schools get creative," Gould said. "They used their own football fields and had ceremonies for small amounts of people at a time."

Mathur said they considered every option they had before making the final call, including consulting with public health experts and exploring several different venues, including the Alamodome. But, she said, no location could accommodate their needs. Mathur said if they did an in-person ceremony, they would have to open it up to May graduates who missed out on the opportunity.

"We have about 4,000 students graduating this semester. There were another 3,400 or so from the May ceremonies," Mathur said. "We could seat no more than a few hundred graduates at any time at any venue."

Even if they tried multiple, smaller ceremonies, Mathur said it would be tough to accomplish.

"We would have to have about 20 to 25 ceremonies," Mathur said.

Gould said she understands the need for social distance complicates the situation. Her argument is that if UTSA can still allow football games, she doesn't see why they can't make an exception for graduates and their families. 

"I don't really see how that's fair," Gould said. "It's kind of a slap in the face. It doesn't really sense in our minds and we're really not getting an explanation on that."

Mathur said the National Collegiate Athletic Association follows different guidelines. 

"The athletic teams and the coaching staff operate as a unit, as a bubble, so the spread of the virus is reduced and contained," Mathur said. "That's simply not possible when we have hundreds and thousands of people celebrating in the commencement ceremony. The scale is completely different."

No matter what, Gould is prepared to make her moment memorable. She's thinking about renting a venue to host her own graduation with her loved ones. 

"It kind of falls on my shoulders to be able to celebrate with my family and create that experience for them," Gould said. "Because it was a family accomplishment. We all did it together."

Gould knows her father will be with her in spirit. She had her class ring engraved for him.

"In the middle, it says, 'It was all for you,'" Gould said. "And it was."

Mathur said UTSA plans to organize another Commencement Drive, as it did for May graduates. December graduates will be able to decorate their cars, honk their horns and drive around campus.

"We're going to do what we did then, but ramp it up with more fun activities," Mathur said. "Students have given us ideas and they're helping us make a bigger and better event. We're planning to build a mock stage that can be used for a photo op."

The drive is planned for Dec. 11, a day before the virtual commencement ceremony.

If you have additional questions about UTSA's decision, click here.

St. Mary's University has also canceled its in-person December commencement ceremony. Instead, there will be a virtual ceremony on Dec. 5. A representative with Our Lady of the Lake University said they have yet to decide on December commencement. They are considering various options and will likely make a decision next week.

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