Under the burnt orange glow of the UT Tower, thousands took their seat as students. They stood up as UT alumni at the University’s 130th commencement Saturday.
UT officials estimate 25,000 people came to see the 8,358 students from the Class of 2013 graduate. Sanya Richards-Ross, former UT student and Olympic gold medalist, delivered the keynote address at the ceremony, which UT officials have been planning for all year.
The class’ graduation rate, a report UT officials consider crucial, was not available by press time. UT is leading an effort to increase its four-year graduation rates, which currently stand at 52 percent, to 70 percent by 2016.
Attendees also faced new security standards and were unable to take any bags larges than 12 inches into the ceremony, a precautionary measure UT adopted after the Boston bombings.
Richards-Ross told the crowd about the successes and failures she had experienced in her running career. She was diagnosed with a rare disease that gave her mouth ulcers, which she said made it difficult for her to run.
Richards-Ross said she pushed through this obstacle to do what she loved and urged graduates to do the same.
“In order to achieve greatness, you will experience failure. It’s the bitter ingredient in the recipe for success,” she said. “Without trying and failing, you never get the opportunity to stand in the face of your disappointments, your insecurities or your arrogance, your pride, and say ‘I’m stronger.’”
UT President William Powers Jr opened the ceremony and conferred degrees at the end. He said this year’s graduates came from 66 countries, 48 states and 158 Texas counties.
“That’s more than 8,000 unique paths leading here to the Main Mall, it’s a big night,” Powers said. “Size and diversity are among our greatest strengths and throughout history we’ve welcomed students seeking knowledge, expertise, inspiration and opportunity.”
Rod Caspers, director of University Events, said his office began physically setting up for graduation in April. Hundreds of people are brought in to replant flowers, paint the streets and set up chairs, among other tasks.
There are six immediate staffers in his office and more are brought in to help with graduation. Many of UT’s events are volunteer-based, he said. About 65 people signed up to volunteer at graduation.
Caspers said people could watch the ceremony in front of the UT Tower or in any of the nine indoor viewing locations across campus, including the Student Activity Center and Hogg Memorial Auditorium. Many go there to avoid the heat, he said.
“It’s kind of like we’re inviting family and friends to our house. You don’t invite family and friends if you don’t have enough food,” Caspers said. “I don’t want people to have a bad experience because we didn’t plan for it.
UT officials said last year 52 percent of 6,679 first-time freshman who came to UT in 2008 graduated in four years; 324 were dismissed; 871 dropped out and 2,000 continued onto a fifth year. Officials said final numbers would be available in the fall.
Event personnel checked bags at all entrances to the weekend’s graduation ceremonies. UT spokeswoman Tara Doolittle said the University prohibited bags larger than 12 inches to be brought into the ceremonies and all other bags would be checked. She said UT worked to inform graduates of the change.
Chemical engineering graduate Rebekah Scheuerle said she appreciated the opportunity to work in a research lab during her time at UT and network with the school’s most talented students.
Philosophy graduate Paulina Sosa said she felt the social experience of studying on campus and interacting with various student communities, studying abroad in Italy and being involved in UT’s entrepreneurship program have changed her life.
“This is the time to really show your biggest supporters, your family, friends and mentors just how much they have impacted you over the years,” Sosa said. “You get to share this victory with the people that believed in you along the way. It's a joyous time that all of us graduates have looked forward to since the beginning.”
Contact Christine Ayala firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @christineayala. Additional reporting by staff writer Jody Serrano.