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Cheers rang out from the bleachers of the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium Saturday and pride filled the end zone throughout the day.

The sparse and socially distanced crowd wasn’t there to celebrate athletic prowess, however, though the University of Memphis Tigers logo adorned many of their masks.

For the college students who graduated in the spring, summer or fall semesters, in the time of coronavirus, the open-air stadium typically home to the university’s football team was transformed into a commencement venue instead. 

“In a year unlike any other… your accomplishments are unlike any other and reveal a great deal,” said University of Memphis President M. David Rudd. His remarks uplifted the students, faculty and staff for “adapting, persisting and moving forward” during the pandemic.

To align with Shelby County Health Department directives, some aspects of the event strayed from tradition — there was no celebratory music, for instance. 

Jamal Cox, 22, dons a mask made by his Mom to celebrate the marketing major’s graduation at a socially distanced University of Memphis commencement ceremony Nov. 28, at the open-air Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. (Photo: Sarah Macaraeg/Commercial Appeal)

But each of the three graduates who spoke with The Commercial Appeal voiced their support for the COVID-19 mitigation measures in place for the ceremony. And for many other aspects of commencement culture, life carried on.

Approximately 435 graduates were estimated by a university spokesperson to be in attendance at each of three ceremonies held Saturday at the stadium, which has a capacity of 58,235.

Eyes on the prize

When each of the graduates’ names were called, the shouts which rang out from loved ones across the canyon of a largely unoccupied stadium were sometimes muted. But with each graduate allowed up to six guests, the celebration was still there.

Jamal Cox, a 22-year-old Marketing major from Germantown, accepted his diploma with his family, best friend and girlfriend present. 

“It’s a blessing, just to share the special day with people that’s been there the whole way,” Cox said. The last few months, he said he’s been focused on keeping his eyes on the prize. 

“I knew out of this hard time, I would come out with something good to take away from it. And that was basically to keep working towards whatever you doing. At some point, the tough times will be over and it’ll be good in the end,” he said.

‘She laughs without fear of the future’

The graduating class didn’t collectively toss their mortarboards. But for Jessica Adams, 31, the commencement cap still served as a canvas to mark the occasion.

“I’m a Mom with two children. They’re with their grandmother today because we don’t want to take any risks,” Adams said of the picture of her family at the top of her cap, surrounded by red and white poppy flowers, as a tribute to fallen combat veterans.