A mere 29 students comprised the Class of 1964. It was enough to fit in then-Nevada Southern University's gymnasium — now the Barrick Museum. It might make for a tight fit if the Class of 2021 tried to re-create the commencement scene from more than 50 years ago.
Instead, this year's graduating cohort will walk an outdoor stage at Sam Boyd Stadium to address the safety concerns of the coronavirus. This isn't the first time UNLV has held an open-air commencement; it's not even the first time the old football stadium has played home to our grads. It's just one of several sites that the university has used for the cap-and-gown set over the years.
Nevada Southern's first few graduating classes piled into the gym, where they were addressed by governors Grant Sawyer (pictured) and Paul Laxalt.
By 1969, swelling class sizes had pushed commencement to the Las Vegas Convention Center. The rotunda, which also hosted UNLV basketball, would see the majority of university graduation ceremonies for more than a decade.
With demand for the Convention Center surging, UNLV was no longer able to get a guaranteed spot every May. For the first time, the university would turn to Las Vegas Stadium, which opened in October 1971. It was the last time commencement would be held at the site, now knows as Sam Boyd Stadium, until this year.
The 1977 ceremony was held at the 7,000-seat Aladdin Theatre for the only time. The student newspaper noted, "Our experience in the heat and wind at the Stadium last year, made this facility less than desirable. We are extremely fortunate to have such an outstanding facility in our community as the Theatre for the Performing Arts, plus the willingness of the Aladdin Management to make it available to us."
Scheduling difficulties receded and the Convention Center once again was the venue for commencement.
For the university's 20th commencement ceremony, UNLV turned to the Riviera in 1983, which was undergoing expansion at the time.
A year later, UNLV settled into its new commencement home at the Thomas & Mack Center. Opened in 1983, the Thomas & Mack became, after the Convention Center, the second longtime site of commencement ceremonies and the location that tens of thousands of happy Rebel memories were cemented by generations of newly minted UNLV grads.
In December 1998, the university held its first-ever winter commencement ceremony. December's grads got their own chance to shine at the Earl E. Wilson Baseball Stadium before both ceremonies were held at the Thomas & Mack starting the following year.
After a virtual commencement for 2020 due to the pandemic, UNLV returns again to in-person ceremonies this year.
As with most things over the last 14 months, it was a fluid situation that required nimbleness and flexibility to pull off. The decision to return to a live event wasn't made until public health officials signaled the all-clear in mid-March.
"It's been kind of on warp speed," Registrar Sam Fugazzotto said. "There was a lot to be done. We've had to take many years worth of routines that have been developed in the Thomas & Mack and develop that for Sam Boyd. It's been going well. I'm certainly excited for it — I think the commencement committee is as well — but there has been a lot of rethinking that's had to go on."
UNLV organizers have put together four ceremonies over three days to safely honor the spring 2021 graduates to give all the 2020 graduates an in-person experience. Students and faculty will be spread out across the entire field, spaced six feet apart, with friends and family in the stands sitting in pods of four. A ticketing system was introduced this year to ensure the venue wouldn't go over capacity under current health guidelines.
The wildcard is heat, wind, or any other surprise Mother Nature cares to throw. But barring that, commencement 2021 will be a small dose of normality creeping back into the public sphere after the disruption of 2020.
"I'm looking forward to a stadium full of happy people," Fugazzotto said. "That's not to sound too corny, but I really do think it's going to be a positive thing for the university to see these graduates walk across the stage."