Graduates embrace after receiving their degrees in Saturday's commencement ceremony. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In a celebration unique to El Paso’s border culture and the University of Texas at El Paso, more than 8,000 college graduates last week marked the school’s first in-person commencement since 2019 and the first at Sun Bowl Stadium since 2014.

Graduates in the two-day ceremony included parents, first-generation students and students who enlisted the help of university officials and federal agencies to ensure their families were able to witness their accomplishments.

“I can’t even believe it,” said Diana Flores, an international business student major and 2021 graduate. “I’m probably not going to believe I graduated until I walk.”

Flores’ family became legal residents of the United States five years ago after living in Ciudad Juárez. Her graduation cap read, “I did it Mom.”

Diana Flores laughs with her mother, María Rodriguez, before the start of the graduation ceremony at UTEP on Friday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Friday’s ceremony honored students from the colleges of Business Administration, Education, and Liberal Arts; Saturday’s students were from the colleges of Engineering, Health Sciences and Science, and schools of Nursing and Pharmacy. The ceremonies recognized both the class of 2020 and spring and summer candidates of the class of 2021.

“In our family we believe that God gives you gifts and then he comes to check on you to see how you used them,” UTEP President Heather Wilson told the graduates. “Every one of you who is earning a degree today has chosen to develop your gifts and by doing so, you have changed the trajectory of your life and the lives of your families.”

UTEP President Heather Wilson helps a student catch her cap and stole as she walks across the stage during Friday’s graduation ceremony. There was some light rain and strong wind for most of the evening. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Beto Lopez, the assistant vice president for the office of university relations, said the outdoor venue made it possible for attendees to practice social distancing.

“The tradition of a Sun Bowl commencement is for something special,” Lopez said. “This stadium holds 45,000 and we can go to less than 50% capacity and still be six feet apart.”

Lopez said UTEP consulted with other universities like Arizona State and spoke with faculty about how to safely hold commencement. Graduates did not shake hands with Wilson or school deans, but were encouraged to start a new tradition while walking the stage — to throw a Miners pick as they were being photographed.

A first-generation college graduate stands for recognition during UTEP’s commencement on Saturday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Wilson specifically recognized Alma Hernandez, “the student who wrote to me that asked if I might try to work with Customs and Border Protection to make it possible for her and other parents to come to graduation tonight.”

A round of applause went throughout the crowd as she thanked CBP’s Hector Mancha, the director of field operations, to make it possible that “100s of mamas and papas are here today from Mexico to celebrate their graduates.”

Earlier this month, UTEP announced that some parents who live in Ciudad Juárez could cross the border to attend the in-person graduation ceremonies if they had proper paperwork. The border has been closed to all but essential travelers since March 21, 2020.

Andrea Daydan, a civil engineering student, expresses her mixed emotions at Saturday’s graduation ceremony. Her mother, a Mexican citizen, was not able to attend her graduation. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Andrea Daydan, a 2020 graduate, said she was going to make a sign that said ‘to all the people who couldn’t come from Juarez, I love you all.”

She said her mother lives in Juarez and couldn’t attend the ceremony because she doesn’t have legal documents, but would be watching a livestream of the event.

Lopez said commencement is especially important for the entire city.

“We have a tradition of commencement because commencement for a first-generation college or university (student) is extremely important,” he said. “It’s not just the graduate, it’s not just the immediate family, it’s the whole neighborhood that celebrates when we have a first generation graduate.”

In bright orange shirts that spelled out “Valeria,” one family stood out to make sure their family’s honoree felt celebrated.

“I didn’t even know they were going to do this,” Valeria Sosa, a first-generation graduate, said. “I’m really proud of myself.”

Wearing a necklace that read “Mom,” Monica Vargas, a 2020 graduate, said she came to walk across the stage so that her kids could see her.

“I came back just so my kids can see me walk because I don’t know if I’ll be doing this again,” she said.

Monica Vargas, a 2020 graduate in education, has already been working as a teacher but decided to return to UTEP for the commencement ceremony so that her children could see her receive her degree. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Vargas, who received her degree in special education, plans to open a non-profit within the next three years to serve children with disabilities.

Luis David Anchondo, a 2020 graduate, was able to share the moment with his grandmother who watched from the side of the stage in her wheelchair.

“I’m the youngest in the whole family and all my cousins got to have this moment with my grandpa. I can’t have it with my grandpa but I can have it with my grandmother,” Anchondo said. “It’s a blessing to share this with her.”

A decorated cap at UTEP’s graduation ceremony. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Wilson also recognized first-generation students, graduates with 3.75 and 4.0 grade point averages, veterans, public health workers and members of the public who volunteered at vaccination clinics.

“In case you were wondering, I was a pretty good student but I did not graduate with a GPA of 3.75,” said Wilson, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and Rhodes Scholar. “So to those who remain seated just now, you can aspire to become a university president.”

On Saturday seats were reserved for families who received posthumous degrees on behalf of a loved one.

Relatives of Alan Harrawood, who died a week before he would have graduated from UTEP, comfort each other at Saturday’s commencement. Alan’s sister, Erika, accepted a posthumous degree on his behalf. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Erika Harrawood accepted the degree for her brother, Alan, who died in a car accident earlier this month.

“He was super excited and something he didn’t stop talking about,” Harrawood said. “Despite how hard it is, we decided to come back for him because we felt like it was the only right thing to do.”

Harrawood said her brother graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and planned on working with their father. She said “it was something he always wanted to do.”

“I feel really proud because he accomplished so much in such a little amount of time,” Harrawood said.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.