‘A glorified photo op’: UCSC faces backlash over ‘Slug Crossing’ graduation ceremony

Justin Davis, Stevenson College student council president, says he hopes UC Santa Cruz brings back traditional commencement.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

UC Santa Cruz replaced more traditional gatherings of its colleges’ graduates with a scaled-down experience, spread over three days, at which grads can receive their diplomas on stage. UCSC cites parking and infrastructure concerns and lack of a venue big enough in sticking with the pandemic-era ceremony, to the dismay of some soon-to-be graduates who’ve seen COVID rob them of many traditional academic experiences.

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As UC Santa Cruz students and faculty prepare for graduation this week, many say they feel “robbed” of a commencement ceremony as the event’s new structure — a pandemic-era creation — becomes permanent.

Rather than a traditional ceremony — where graduating students from all 10 of UCSC’s colleges sit together in person to listen to speakers and receive their diplomas — the university is offering students a scaled-down ceremony. Each student will be allowed to book a 15-minute time slot to walk with their family members to a stage on the Upper East Field. There, they’ll walk onto a stage to receive their diplomas and shake hands with Chancellor Cynthia Larive and Campus Provost Lori Kletzer before heading to a reception area.

Called “Slug Crossing” the entire commencement ceremony is spread out over three days and set to last 1½ hours for each college.

Justin Davis, a fourth-year transfer student and Stevenson College student president, said he and many other students feel “robbed” after already not having a traditional college experience due to the pandemic. “The description even sounds like a cheat,” he said.

This is the third year UCSC has used a Slug Crossing-style commencement. The university used to have a traditional ceremony, but school officials say they realized during the 2019 commencement season that campus parking and traffic infrastructure wouldn’t make it sustainable going forward.

UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason the school doesn’t have enough parking to accommodate the number of cars for guests and students to arrive on campus at the same time. It also creates “tremendous congestion” on roadways, causing more parking challenges and potential hazards if emergency vehicles had to access campus.

Slug Crossing relieves the issue of the campus’ limited parking infrastructure, he said, by allowing UCSC to stagger ceremonies. Facing similar challenges with organizing large-scale outdoor events, UC Davis and UC Riverside are hosting commencement ceremonies at off-campus venues this year.

A screenshot from a UCSC YouTube video describing the Slug Crossing commencement.
A screenshot from a UCSC YouTube video describing the Slug Crossing commencement.
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

Hernandez-Jason said after the 2019 commencement challenges, the university considered holding the event at a stadium in San Jose because there were no venues big enough in Santa Cruz. However, he said, a 2020 survey showed that students wanted to celebrate with their friends on campus.

Then the pandemic hit and UCSC shifted to Slug Crossing. Some students and faculty say they expected the school would return to a traditional commencement format this year with the official end of the pandemic health emergency.

Hernandez-Jason told Lookout that continuing Slug Crossing this year was not a way to prevent the spread of COVID or a way for UCSC to save money. He said costs for this year’s commencement are going to exceed those of the last traditional commencement because of inflation and equipment rental costs.

Slug Crossing was a UCSC innovation, and not modeled on other campuses, he said. He said the university had working groups focused on how to go forward with commencement in 2020 and 2021. He said the groups included representatives from many campus groups including provosts, but didn’t say who specifically.

The university hasn’t surveyed students about commencement since 2020. “It’s a decision that, ultimately, everything comes up to the chancellor’s office,” he said.

Hernandez-Jason added that the university is aware that some people are disappointed. “We know not everybody is pleased with this approach, but similarly, not everyone was pleased with a two-hour ceremony that was potentially really, really hot and a lot of stress because if you can’t find parking, or you’re running late, there’s a lot of anxiety,” he said.

Several students, parents and faculty told Lookout they feel they’re losing an important part of the college experience.

“Not having a regular commencement — it sucks. I was mad. I was frustrated. I was sad. I was disappointed,” said Angie Aguilar, a fourth-year transfer student. “Getting into a UC is such a big accomplishment, so why not celebrate us?”

As a 32-year-old, first-generation student, Aguilar sees a traditional ceremony as a meaningful way to celebrate her academic achievement.

She has six guests, including several family members and her boyfriend, traveling from the Southern California city of Hemet to watch her graduate during Kresge College’s Slug Crossing on Saturday. She doesn’t know what it will be like for her family to walk and not sit down through a traditional ceremony. Her father has trouble walking because of a bad knee.

Aguilar started a petition at the end of winter quarter to push UC Santa Cruz to return to a traditional ceremony. She got over 1,000 signatures from UCSC students and their families, but realized it was too late for the university to change course because of the amount of planning. She joined the Kresge College graduation celebration committee, and she and other students are helping organize a small graduation party Friday.

Hernandez-Jason emphasized that the university has received a lot of positive feedback from people who have participated in previous Slug Crossings.

He put Lookout in contact with a parent who attended her son’s graduation last year and enjoyed the event. Santa Monica resident Yolanda Lewis is the marketing and communications director of the Santa Monica Education Foundation. Her daughter will also be graduating from UCSC in two years.

Lewis attended her son’s Slug Crossing last year and said the event felt personalized, ran smoothly and was a great way to celebrate his time at UCSC.

“My family’s experience was superb,” she said. “We had also kind of hoped for traditional graduation but, I’ll tell you, my favorite part was not sitting through boring speeches in the hot sun next to the same two people for hours.”

Merrill College Provost Elizabeth Abrams said there are many aspects she’ll miss about the commencements her college organized, including the sight of the crowd of hundreds of Merrill graduates sitting together and holding sunflowers. A tradition she borrowed from Kresge College, Merrill College graduates will still get sunflowers when they get their diplomas, Abrams said.

She’ll also miss the aspect of the commencement ceremony that made it a collective and shared experience among the colleges’ students. They sat together and listened to the speeches together and watched their colleagues cross the stage together, rather than walking through the stage once a student receives their diploma.

UCSC Merrill College Provost Elizabeth Abrams.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I hope that we will find a way back to our former approach to commencement,” Abrams said. “I don’t know if it’s possible.”

Flora Lu, provost for College 9 and John R. Lewis College, said commencements before the pandemic were “transcendent” and were a collaborative effort of student leaders, residential college leaders and faculty. Several commencement ceremonies took place in the Quarry Amphitheater after its renovation was completed.

The commencement ceremonies for those colleges included welcome greetings in multiple languages, speeches from students, provosts and a keynote speaker. Theater faculty helped students prepare for their speeches.

“It was such a carefully honed day of celebration,” she said.

Lu said she’s been receiving messages from parents who are confused about Slug Crossing.

Slug Crossing ceremony details

UCSC Slug Crossing ceremonies start Thursday and continue through Sunday on the Upper East Field on campus. In total, the campus has 13 ceremonies and celebrations planned including the college ceremonies as well as the Latinx/Chicanx ceremony and the Baskin School of Engineering ceremonies. Students select a 15-minute time slot within their affiliated ceremonies.

Beginning Thursday tt 5 p.m. students can view a virtual commencement that will be available to view for one year.

One of those parents, UCSC alum Amy Haruyama, reached out to Lu because her daughter will be graduating next year. Haruyama is a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District.

She said she wanted to ensure that Slug Crossing wouldn’t be her daughter’s commencement experience after several years of pandemic-interrupted accomplishments.

“It’s just a glorified photo-op session,” said Haruyama.

Haruyama’s daughter didn’t get a high school graduation in 2020. Then her freshman year at UCSC went entirely virtual because of the pandemic.

“She’s felt like she’s missed out on many different rites of passage,” she said. “She just feels kind of cheated.”


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