Saturday, May 14, 2011 | 5:25 p.m.
It was a mix of ancient tradition with the crowd from a basketball game, but officials quickly found a way to mix in some current politics, too.
UNLV held its 49th spring commencement ceremony Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center, where graduates quietly sat on the arena floor in their robes while family and friends cheered, yelled names and blew air horns.
The graduating class was the largest in UNLV history, an “amazing” accomplishment considering how difficult the past year has been for the university, President Neal Smatresk said.
And it didn’t take long in the ceremony for school officials to remind the graduates and their families of the university’s need for help.
“We want you to come join our cause,” said James Dean Leavitt, the chair of the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents, in his opening greetings at the morning ceremony.
The university faces major financial troubles and may have close or significantly cut programs depending on what budget the state Legislature passes in the coming weeks.
Leavitt took the opportunity to ask students to contact the governor and members of the Legislature and ask them to support higher education.
He said the graduates were proof of the excellent dividends that come from investing in education.
“Today we celebrate your achievements and we celebrate the choices you made to contribute to the intellectual capital of our state,” Leavitt said.
UNLV has now awarded more than 99,000 degrees, with 2,873 students graduating Saturday.
The average student is 28 years old, but the youngest is just 19 years old and the eldest is 78 years old.
In addition, 43 percent of the students are minorities, Smatresk said. “That makes this class not only the largest, but the most diverse in UNLV history.”
And while 71 percent of the graduates are Nevada residents, students came from 44 states, a couple of U.S. territories and 60 foreign countries, proof of UNLV’s world-class status, Smatresk said.
Maria Tenorio Camacho came to UNLV from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory, and is the first in her family to graduate from college.
“It was a really long road to get where we are,” she said. “It feels like a dream.”
The criminal justice major plans to take a year off before going to law school, she said.
“It feels awesome to know that the degree is mine and to know that my parents are proud of me makes me so happy,” she said.
For many of the students, the path to graduation has not been easy, as a sampling of the distinguished students recognized at the ceremony shows.
Cody Bremner, who received a bachelor’s degree in athletic training, is an Army veteran who served in Iraq and has done internships with the Mayo Clinic and the Kansas City Royals.
Sean Comeau spent time on Lake Mead every week for a year as he worked on his masters in public health.
Shipra De received not one, but three, bachelor’s degrees Saturday, one in economics, one in computer science and one in math.
After spending five years at UNLV, De said she is ready for a break from school, but hopes to eventually come back for a master’s, she just not sure in which subject yet; “I hope to have an epiphany during a break,” she said.
The ceremony was exciting, she said while waiting in the Cox Pavilion for the event to begin. “This brings you together with all the people you’ve been working with for the last five years,” she said.
One student took eight years off to become a rock star before graduating Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in music.
Ronnie Vannucci, the drummer for the Killers, first enrolled in UNLV in 2000. He used to sneak his band mates into Ham Hall to practice.
So after Smatresk handed Vannucci a diploma, Dean Jeffrey Koep of the College of Fine Arts gave the rock star a key to Ham Hall. “You don’t have to sneak in at midnight anymore, Ronnie,” the dean said.
Vanucci flew to Las Vegas for the graduation from London, where was getting ready for a recording.
“I’m proud to be here with you, I’m proud to be a Rebel,” he said.