For UI grads, years of work culminate in one day

URBANA — One hand in his right pocket and a new University of Illinois necktie draped over his right shoulder, Tyrone Green looks as casual as possible in his blue graduation gown and mortarboard.

But when it is viewed again years from now, the photo his mother, Charlene Spellman, snaps on Sunday behind the iconic Alma Mater will belie some of his emotions. He's excited and he's nervous. Mom is, too.

He's been working hard for four years, Spellman says.

"Now four years amount to this one day," Green says back.

Hundreds of others capture the moment underneath the 82-year-old Alma Mater statue's untiring, outstretched arms on their graduation day, some waiting in line an hour for the opportunity.

She's showing her age — corrosion streaks her face, and her bronze robe has been tarnished green. The statue will be removed this August for restoration and returned in time for next year's graduation photo opportunities, but she and the two other larger-than-life figures at her side won't be the same.

It's yet to be decided whether she'll be fully restored to her original bronze color, but the class of 2012 surely will be the last to capture the Alma Mater's decades of weathering.

But just like Green, the poses the graduates strike underneath her on Sunday are as mixed as their emotions.

In his gown and thick, orange-framed sunglasses, Hari Rao calls this one the "mountain man" — crouched low underneath the statue, he flexes one arm behind his head and stretches the other at an angle toward the sky. His gown blooms with his wide pose.

It's a stance that he and his friends have repeated in pictures throughout Rao's five years — "it's kind of our trademark pose," Rao says.

And it's a "bittersweet" moment, he adds. With his master's degree in engineering, he is heading to Chicago where he will have a consulting job — and splitting up with some of those friends with whom he has struck the mountain man pose.

He's not done with the photos yet, though. He and Leslie Lopez, graduating with a master's of business administration, climb onto the Alma Mater for a few more. Lopez stands on the statue's throne and peeks out from behind its head. Rao climbs all the way up to kneel on the Alma Mater's shoulders.

"Careful," Lopez says as the entire statue sways under his weight.

Not all of the photos will be silly — most of the graduates, parents, relatives and friends lined up will take many more than one. Lopez climbs down to pose with her brother, who graduated several years ago and introduced her to the University of Illinois. He plants a kiss on her left cheek.

But one of the most common scenes will place the graduate in the middle, flanked by beaming parents. A lot of them can't see the empty beer bottle hidden in the shadow of a tree about 50 feet away.

After Rao and Lopez are gone, Jessica Alkass steps out from the front of the line to take her pictures. Her poses are more reserved — she rests her right arm on a ledge of the statue, puts her left hand on her hip and raises the heel of one foot a few inches off the ground.

She looks relaxed, but like a lot of others, she can't help but be a bit uneasy. She's leaving with a degree in advertising, and she knows the job market is a bit "iffy."

Green, who will take his picture about an hour later, has his concerns about the job market, too. But today he'll be thinking a lot about the past four years. In one sentence, he calls it both a "wonderful experience" and "a struggle."

He's in the second generation of his family to attend college, and having grown up in the low-income North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago's west side, he says it was a financial struggle at times.

Sometimes an emotional struggle, too. His freshman year started well after earning a 3.6 grade-point average, and he witnessed the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama through a program at the Bruce D. Nesbitt African-American Cultural Center.

His sophomore year in 2009 took a turn when a 19-year-old classmate was shot and killed on a trip home to Chicago. Green started struggling with classes, but said he stayed focused with the help of family and friends.

It was an "intense" four years. But now he wants to go into law enforcement, he says, and he hopes one day to work with the FBI.

Smiling, he now strikes a pose at the rear of the Alma Mater statue while shaking hands with another graduate. Among all the emotions the graduates exhibit or hide, the day brings a sense of relief, he says.

Not only for him, but for his mother, too.

"We're excited, we're happy, we're nervous," Spellman says.

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Sid Saltfork wrote on May 14, 2012 at 10:05 am

Best of luck to Mr. Green, and all of the other U. of I. grads.  They represent the future for this country.  I hope they all are successful, and are role models to the generations following them.   The only advice that I would offer them is to not accept public service employment unless they absolutely have to do it.  If it is the only job available; accept it, and get out of it as soon as another job becomes available.