2,000-plus UI students graduate this month
URBANA — They've paid thousands in tuition, slogged through years of lectures and final exams, maybe even finished their studies ahead of schedule.
Now it's graduation time. In the snow.
About 2,200 students quietly graduate in December every year at the University of Illinois, completing their degrees a semester early or late.
For some, the only option for a full-fledged graduation ceremony is to return in May for the campuswide commencement and/or various college or departmental celebrations.
But several colleges offer their own December convocations, complete with caps, gowns, faculty processions and proud parents.
The College of Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the UI's two largest, will host commencement ceremonies Saturday at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Two smaller units, the School of Labor and Employment Relations and School of Social Work, have already held their convocations. And two other colleges host receptions — the College of Media and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
Laura Wilhelm-Barr, director of special events for the campus, said the overall number of December graduates has been fairly steady in recent years, at 2,184 last year. That's up by 240 over 10 years ago, but overall campus enrollment is also higher, she said. By comparison, 8,375 students graduated last spring.
With tuition at $15,000 a year and up — not to mention housing costs — some students graduate early to save money.
Others spread out their studies over an extra semester so they have time to study abroad, conduct research, land an internship, or just take advantage of campus activities.
Valeria Laguna, a mechanical engineering major graduating Saturday after 4.5 years, studied in France, held leadership posts in several engineering student groups, played on the UI's club tennis team and had three internships, which led to her future job with Procter and Gamble.
"I wouldn't have been able to do it if I was taking more classes," she said.
In the College of Engineering, 550 students are completing their bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees this month, though not all are attending Saturday's event.
The college has hosted its own ceremony since at least 1985, said spokesman Bill Bell.
"It is a challenging curriculum, and we want to acknowledge folks who do the work to finish in December as well," he said.
A total of 358 students have registered for the College of LAS winter convocation, including 60 master's degree candidates and 15 Ph.D.s, said Scott Bartlett, academic adviser for the history department, who is coordinating this year's ceremony. The college has a growing number of December graduates, as well as a large international student population who may find it difficult to get back to campus for the May commencement because of visa issues, Bartlett said.
"Coming back five months later is not an option," he said.
In LAS, students are offered the option of a December or May graduation — but not both. Individual schools and departments in the college usually host ceremonies to go along with the campuswide commencement in May, but there's no separate college ceremony in the spring.
"We're a huge college; we would need a larger venue," he said.
Anne Machesky, who took a semester off for personal reasons, is graduating this month with a degree in molecular and cellular biology. She opted not to go through the LAS winter convocation and doesn't plan to attend the campuswide commencement next spring, either. But she will come back for a special honors program ceremony through her department in May, which she finds more meaningful.
Most of her friends plan to go through graduation in May anyway, and with two parents who work as chemists at the UI, she'll still be in the area.
But she thinks the December convocations are important, "especially for first-generation college students, and maybe people who worked really hard to get where they are," she said. "People get jobs and they move away, and it's something that should be celebrated."
Stefan Djordjevic, who's also in the molecular and cellular biology honors program, decided to graduate early to help defray his college costs — especially since he's planning to head to medical school next year.
"We didn't have much money growing up," said Djordjevic, whose family emigrated from Serbia in the 1980s.
He'll be at the LAS ceremony on Saturday. He was worried about making it back in the spring, as he may be working in California by then. In the meantime he has a NASA fellowship lined up at the Johnson Space Center starting in January.
The winter convocations tend to be shorter and more personal than the big spring commencement, with graduates given the opportunity to hear their names called and walk across the stage — something that only Ph.D. candidates enjoy at the campuswide commencement.
Saturday's ceremonies may not be as boisterous — "they don't usually throw their hats, to be honest," Bartlett said — or feature keynote addresses from the likes of ABC commentator Cokie Roberts or White House Chief of Staff William Daley (two recent commencement speakers).
But the graduates do get to sing the "Alma Mater," move their tassles over, process in and out, and hear words of advice from their dean. And the engineering convocation will feature an address by college alumnus Edward Caulfield (an expert in accident investigations and a leading consultant to farm machinery, industrial equipment and automobile manufacturers).
"It's kind of like a rite of passage, and it's nice to do it when you actually finish your degree, not when you maybe have been working for three months," said Laguna. "I'm from Venezuela. Literally every single person who is coming to my graduation is flying in, except my mom, who lives in Chicago. It would be weird to have them come in May, after I've been working for three months."
Even if she came back in May, Laguna said she'd opt for the college ceremony rather than the campuswide commencement.
"I feel a lot more connected to the College of Engineering than I do the University of Illinois," she said. "For most of us we want to be with our family and friends. It makes more sense to take them to the engineering one where they can actually hear your name being called."
The mechanical engineering department is also hosting a brunch for the winter graduates, and the minority engineering program held a graduation dinner, too.
"I personally feel like I haven't been overlooked," she said.
Care to watch?
To view the Winter Convocation for the University of Illinois College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at 10 a.m. Saturday click on: