campus news

True Blue pride takes the stage during commencement season

UB’s commencement season is a True Blue celebration. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published April 24, 2024

“Just watching them walk onto the arena floor and have this moment of ‘whoa, this is really happening’ — it’s such an amazing thing to witness. Every year I get teary. ”
Anne Mecca, assistant director for admissions and student services
College of Arts and Sciences

Once, decades back in UB’s long history of annual commencement exercises, graduating students were publicly reprimanded during the ceremony for tossing beach balls through the crowd. The following year, a staff person was put on “beach ball duty” in order to keep things more reserved.

Fast forward to current times: Commencement activities now make a point of allowing room for some True Blue excitement, with balloon drops, glowsticks and more.

It’s all designed to let the graduates know that this moment is theirs to celebrate.

And there’s plenty of opportunity to celebrate. Commencement season at UB consists of 18 separate degree conferral ceremonies held by the university’s 12 academic units. According to Jocelyn Jakubus, director of university and presidential events, commencement planning is a yearlong process, involving every department on campus working together. When it finally arrives, she says, “We have six different ceremonies in one day, which means two ceremonies are happening at one time.”

University commencements have always been momentous occasions, but those of yesteryear had less party with their pomp.  Photo courtesy of University Archives.

And while there are standards across each ceremony for consistency, each one has its own fun and flourishes in addition to the very serious business of declaring several thousand students to be officially graduated. At the medical school, Jakubus says, graduates read their oath and get hooded by faculty who have impacted their journey, while over at the College of Arts and Sciences, there are selfie stations and viral videos. President Satish K. Tripathi and Provost A. Scott Weber make sure that one of them personally attends each of the 18 ceremonies, making it a busy, but gratifying, few weeks.

And that’s not all. In the lead-up to commencement day, there are several different universitywide recognition and certificate ceremonies recognizing the achievements of specific groups of students. There are also banquets organized by individual departments, award presentations, champagne toasts and cap-decorating gatherings, where students are encouraged to “trick out their tassels.”

The stereotypical commencement of the past — dignified, yes, but also maybe a little dull — has given way to more personal vibes and meaningful moments, particularly at the undergraduate level.

Zamira Caldwell speaks at one of the College of Arts and Sciences’ undergraduate commencement ceremonies in May 2023. She says the experience was a celebration she’ll never forget. Photo: Tom Wolf.

A ‘wow moment’ that endures

Anne Mecca, who coordinates the two undergraduate commencement ceremonies for the College of Arts and Sciences, is at least partly responsible for bringing some party to the pomp, a phrase she uses to describe a student-centered approach to the event.

“The university leadership, the faculty, the guests — everyone who comes is important, but really, it’s all about the students,” Mecca says. “And they should be allowed to celebrate. They should be proud of themselves.”

Zamira Caldwell graduated in 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences. She says commencement was a “wow moment” that she still feels a year later.

“They really pulled out all the stops,” Caldwell recalls. “I definitely got the message that we should have fun with it. I was able to take it all in without feeling stressed about all the other things going on.”

That’s saying a lot for Caldwell, who not only had her last exam the day before but was also selected as a student speaker for the ceremony.

“UB helped me grow into a more confident version of myself, so I felt well-rehearsed,” she says of her speech before the crowd of an estimated 6,000 people. In it, she talked about the challenges she faced as a biracial, low-income, first-generation college student who transferred twice and changed majors twice.

“I wanted to make it personal and talk about my own identities, but I also wanted to talk about some of the obstacles we’ve all overcome,” she says. “And I wanted to make people smile at the end.”

Before she took the podium, Caldwell says, a girl sitting nearby cheered her on. Afterward, Caldwell got a hug from College of Arts and Sciences Dean Robin Schulze. And she returned to her seat to congratulations from those around her — and offers to share photos they took while she was on stage. “So many people were rooting for me. I wasn’t expecting that. It’s like, commencement is another place where you might make some friends. It was the UB community reaffirmed.”

Ryan Dewan (center), who will be graduating this year with a degree in biological sciences and attending UB medical school in the fall, poses with his siblings, Janae and Paul, at their UB graduation last year. Photo: Tom Wolf

From mascot to mortarboard

Also in attendance last year was Ryan Dewan, now a graduating senior himself, who had the unique opportunity to don the Victor E. Bull costume for pre-ceremony photo ops with the students.

Then, as the ceremony started, he was able to get out of the suit and watch from the balcony as his brother, Paul, and sister, Janae, walked across the stage.

“I was really proud of both of them,” says Dewan. “The three of us did everything with each other at UB. But it was also surreal, knowing that they were starting a whole new chapter of their lives, and that I was right behind them.” 

Dewan is looking forward to the kickoff of his own commencement this May for a few reasons.

One involves something the Class of 2024 in general can relate to.

“I didn’t get a real graduation in high school because of COVID. We had a drive-by ceremony, where you got out of your car, they handed you the diploma, and then you left,” he recalls. “It wasn’t anything too special.”

Dewan says once the pandemic waned, he made a point of getting involved. “I went out of my comfort zone and got involved in research. I played violin with the UB Symphony Orchestra for two years. I was able to do intramural sports and clubs,” he says. “I did so much that I wasn’t always able to take time to sit back and appreciate it.”

Commencement, he says, is a chance to see the culmination of his efforts.

“And it’s not just for me,” he says. “My parents supported me in so many ways these past four years. This will be a moment for them, because they put in the hard work too.”

Getting ready for the big day(s)

Anne Mecca, coordinator of strategic programs for CAS, lets loose the balloons at a 2023 commencement ceremony. She says that a fantastic team of faculty and staff from across the university helps make the events successful and special. Photo: Tom Wolf

UB’s Countdown to Commencement is now well underway, with nearly 6,500 students ready to receive degrees and several times that many guests preparing to cheer them on.

As always, it will be a day to remember for each one of them — all thanks to a huge team effort by individuals across the university, including staff from the Office of University Events, Center for the Arts, University Facilities, and every school and college, as well as many others. From the platform party to the clean-up crew, each ceremony takes its own True Blue village.

Even after seven seasons of commencement planning, it’s still the most exciting, most special time, says Mecca, who keeps framed photos of past events in her office.

“It’s such a milestone event for these students. Think about even just the small things — every class, every test, every study night, every club meeting. That’s all shaped them into the person they are at this moment,” she says. “This is a celebration of all that.”

The day of the event, after months of work and planning, Mecca stands nearby as the students queue up for their moment in the spotlight, decked out in their blue caps and gowns.

“Just watching them walk onto the arena floor and have this moment of ‘whoa, this is really happening’ — it’s such an amazing thing to witness,” she said. “Every year I get teary.”