Iowa universities resume spring in-person commencement, thousands expected

Computer science and philosophy graduate Janhavi Bodkhe of India poses Thursday for a picture after graduating from the University of Iowa at the first in-person international student graduation ceremony at the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Doctor of Philosophy graduate Waheed Olaleye Awotoye of Nigeria closes his eyes Thursday as he holds his 10-month old daughter, Zaynab Awotoye, who smiles while grabbing his cords during the international student graduation ceremony at the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

An international student wears a 2022 tassel Thursday during the international student graduation ceremony at the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

University of Iowa graduate Kurayi Mahachi of Zimbabwe poses for a portrait Thursday outside of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Marissa Ouverson competes Sept. 16 at the American Royal Steak Cookoff in Kansas City. She’s graduating from Iowa State University this weekend. (Photo provided by Marissa Ouverson)

Marin Ehlers, a four-year thrower for the University of Northern Iowa’s track and field team, is graduating this weekend. (Photo provided by Marin Ehlers)

IOWA CITY — Two years after Iowa’s public universities made the unprecedented and heart-wrenching pandemic-propelled decision to cancel in-person spring commencement ceremonies — a historic rite of passage — all three are resurrecting them this weekend.

More than 11,500 graduates across the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa campuses are expected to participate in dozens of commencement ceremonies — which started Thursday and will continue through Sunday.

The hiatus has given some graduates a special appreciation for the tradition. Due to high interest among ISU grads wanting to attend this year’s ceremony — 80 percent of an estimated 4,274 bachelor’s degree recipients — the university is holding three undergraduate ceremonies Saturday, as opposed to the usual two.

“Even prior to the pandemic, the participation percentages at commencement were going up,” ISU registrar Jennifer Suchan said, noting nearly 1,000 more students than the previous largest commencement in May 2017 are planning to attend this weekend.

“What I think we’re seeing this spring is a function of the disruption of the last two and a half years,” Suchan said. “People want to celebrate. They want something joyful to come together for. The past few years have given people a different perspective on these milestone events in life.”

In total, an estimated 5,039 ISU students are completing degrees this spring, on par with last spring’s 4,994 and 2020’s 5,096. UNI is expecting about 1,400 participants in its ceremonies this weekend, similar to last spring’s 1,484 and 2020’s 1,422.

The UI expects 5,124 will participate in its commencement ceremonies this weekend. That number was 5,303 last year and 5,473 in 2020 — when all graduation ceremonies were virtual.

All three regent schools held only online ceremonies in spring and winter 2020. UNI summarized its in-person commencement in spring 2021, while still offering an online option. And while UI and ISU State offered in-person graduation “celebrations” last spring, they kept many official virtual commencements.

All three campuses this spring are resuming in-person commencement, while offering online options for those want to participate virtually or for family members who can’t make it.

UI: Global celebration

From Pennsylvania, Kurayi Mahachi’s mom made the trek this week to see her 30-year-old son receive his UI doctorate in epidemiology. Originally from Zimbabwe, Mahachi had the opportunity to participate Thursday in the campus’ first-ever in-person international student graduation held in the Old Capitol Museum.

Robust international populations on college campuses incite creativity and innovation through debate and discussion from diverse perspectives, UI anthropology professor Cynthia Chou said during the ceremony. And recent crops of UI international students, she said, have had more hurdles than many before them.

“Over the past two years, international students have faced unparalleled challenges due to disruptions brought upon by the pandemic,” she said, noting many students had to hurriedly return to home nations like China, Bangladesh, Nigeria or Taiwan.

Mahachi said he remained In Iowa, pursuing public health and epidemiology degrees — which became especially relevant as his research interests centered on infectious disease, although not COVID-19 specifically.

“It threw a wrench in my plans,” he said about the pandemic’s impact on his studies. “I had to change one of my research projects. But thankfully I had something else I was working on.”

Mahachi is participating not only in the UI international graduation but the College of Public Health commencement before heading to his new job in July with the Minnesota Department of Health.

ISU: Grill Master

Where COVID-19 created academic impediments for many, it sparked the flame of opportunity for Marissa Ouverson, a Kansas City native in her sophomore year at ISU when the pandemic hit.

Having been around competitive cooking her whole life—with her dad battling in barbecue challenges and her brother at Steak Cookoff Association events—Ouverson, then 20, decided to use the freedom virtual learning affords to try out her grilling chops.

Her first Steak Cookoff Association competition was May 30, 2020 — the Cornfed Classic Stead Cookoff in Rockford. She placed eighth, landing her $50 and a new passion for competition grilling.

Balancing virtual study and travel during the week with competitive grilling on weekends, Ouverson said she hit only a few snags.

“There was one time we were traveling, and I was trying to take an exam,” Ouverson said. “My mom was driving, and I told her we’ve got to pull over because I don’t have enough (internet) service to finish my exam. So we had to pull over on this back road in Arkansas.”

In total — from May to December of 2020 — Ouverson grilled in 54 competitions in 12 different states. That first year she netted five first-place wins and 24 top 10 placements.

Then — on March 13, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas — Ouverson won the Steak Cookoff Association World Championship out of 362 competitors with a score of 251.9 out of a possible 254.5. She was the first female and youngest-ever champion.

“I mean, it was awesome,” Ouverson said, noting the top prize was $10,000.

For more standard competitions on the circuit, first place comes with a $1,000 prize — although Ouverson said she appreciates that many of the competitions raise awareness for certain causes, like veterans or the Jesse Dylan James Foundation, which has a mission of preventing teen suicide.

That links to Ouverson’s ISU degree in psychology, with a minor in adult and family services. Her ella next step de ella is a master’s degree at Missouri State University, before eventually becoming a suicide-specialized counselor.

She also is planning to continue competitive grilling.

UNI: ‘Throwing for UNI’

Even though Marin Ehler is graduating from UNI this weekend — and giving a speech at commencement — she won’t be there in person to walk across the stage. She’ll be competing with her de ella UNI track and field teammates at the 2022 Missouri Valley Conference Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Drake University.

“Just to be part of the team was one of the coolest experiences,” Ehler, 21, said. “It was a very big character-building experience, I would say, just trying to learn how to balance everything. But I feel like it’s made me a better person overall.”

As a middle schooler in her hometown of Ossian, Ehler dipped her toe in throwing. Unsure of whether she wanted to continue shot put in high school, Ehler said she got lucky with a “really great” coach who helped her develop into a state champion and team captain.

“He worked with me and built me ​​up… and now I’m throwing for UNI,” Ehler said.

As a Panther, Ehler does both the shot put and hammer throw, placing fifth and eighth, respectively, at the recent MVC Indoor Championships.

“But I think my favorite part about UNI is definitely the people,” she said. “They’re some of the best people I’ve met, and I’m forever thankful for them and the relationships and the memories I’ve made with them.”

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