CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - UNC Charlotte’s first commencement ceremony of the weekend took place Friday evening as students and faculty continue working through the traumatic aftermath from last week’s deadly campus shooting.
The Friday 1 p.m. commencement ceremony was moved to 5 p.m. Doors opened at 3:30 p.m.
For new UNC Charlotte graduates, that graduation means celebration.
“Oh, I’m just so happy,” graduate Emia Black said after she walked across the stage.
It means happy tears.
“Because I’m the first generation to actually get a degree,” Crystal Andrade said,.
But it also means a sense of loss.
“We’re celebrating such a big accomplishment, and not everybody can be here for that,” Wendy Jimenez said.
The university is still mourning the loss of two students from last week’s campus shooting. The shooting took the lives of two students - Riley Howell, 21, and Ellis Reed Parlier, 19 - and left four other students injured after officials say 22-year-old Trystan Terrell opened fire in a classroom. Rami Alramadhan, 20, 20-year-old Sean Dehart, 23-year-old Emily Houpt, and 19-year-old Drew Pescaro were injured in the shooting.
The graduates wore white ribbons on their green gowns Friday, in memory of the students killed in the shooting, just less than two weeks ago.
Some of them said this was their first time returning to campus, since the shooting happened.
Inside, the school devoted several moments to remember Reed Parlier and Riley Howell, with gestures including a special song dedicated to the two young men, and a moment of silence.
The school also announced donated funds to create $1 million in scholarships, in Riley and Reed’s names.
And Friday, some decorated caps said it all – ‘Niner Strong,’ ‘Charlotte Strong’ - as this campus community continues to sort through loss, and seek some sense of the new normal.
“We all came together as a community and honored them in a good way,” Black said.
The commencement ceremony scheduled for 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 11, for the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences has been pushed back to 4:00 p.m. and will remain in the Dale F. Halton Arena, UNC Charlotte officials say. Doors will open at 2:30 p.m.
Saturday’s 10 a.m. ceremony will continue as planned, with doors opening at 8:30 a.m.
Houpt is expected to make her way across the stage during commencement Saturday, UNC Charlotte Chancellor Philip Dubois says. “We’re going to make a special presentation for Emily," Dubois said. "We want to make sure she’s properly honored.”
Dubois says they also want to acknowledge 4,800 graduate and undergraduate students.
The university plans to have enhanced security at Friday and Saturday’s commencement ceremonies.
“We already had a security plan, we enhanced that security plan," UNCC Police Chief Baker said of commencement security, which will include magnetometers, wanding and bag checking. “Similar to what you see at the airport," Baker said. “Everybody’s going through that.”
All guests will be required to pass through metal detectors, according to the university’s website, and no large bags, umbrellas, banners or balloons will be allowed in the arena.
Many students are understandably on edge following the tragic events and are seeking counseling, university officials said during Wednesday’s conference.
David Spano, director of the center for counseling and psychological services (CAPS), says there was a measurable uptick in students seeking counseling following the events.
“We’ve seen students who were in the classroom, students who were nearby," Spano said. “They’ve had issues with anxiety – fear of coming back to campus.”
Spano said faculty will be trained to watch for signs that students are still dealing with trauma when they return in the fall. As students return home, UNC Charlotte counselors are working on identifying resources in students’ communities.
Friday’s commencement was moved to allow more exam time, although university officials say, so far, only about 10 percent of students have returned to take exams.
“Most faculty had enough material to grade students on,” Joan Lorden said.
Exams scheduled past Tuesday of last week were canceled following the shooting.
Students were informed of exam schedules through email, with two options:
- Option 1: You may forgo taking the final exam in any of your courses and accept your current course grade as your final grade.
- Option 2: You may take your final exam and have that grade included in your final course grade.
University leaders said they are still reviewing initial response, training and everything surrounding the shooting.
“Everything we know today is that we had a very rapid response,” Dubois said. “You can always learn something from these types of tragedies.”
University leaders will look at enhanced security measures moving forward, especially with games and large events.
Dubois says they are also looking at how to memorialize the tragic incident and those involved.
“There’s no quick fix on how to memorialize,” Dubois said.
Dubois says the remembrance committee, which was formed this week, will look at how to properly memorialize, taking into account family feedback.