Academics People and Community

Graduates celebrate with family and friends

Students posed for photos, danced, and celebrated with family and friends after the University’s commencement ceremonies on Friday.
Hope Brown, left, of West Palm Beach, and her daughter, Brianna Benjamin, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in global health on Friday, May 10. Photo: Janette Neuwahl Tannen/University of Miami
Hope Brown, left, of West Palm Beach, and her daughter, Brianna Benjamin, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and business law on Friday, May 10. Photo: Janette Neuwahl Tannen/University of Miami

For Hope Brown, seeing her daughter Brianna Benjamin walk across the stage at the University of Miami graduation Friday was something she was not sure would happen.

Just a few years ago, Benjamin began fainting because of a rare blood disease. It started happening so often at the end of high school that Benjamin had to enroll in virtual school.

“I’m so overwhelmed because this is just so awesome,” said Brown, a literacy specialist from West Palm Beach, Florida. “People told me she couldn’t attend college because she was so sick, but seeing her now, I am just so proud.”

Finally, midway through her sophomore year at the University, doctors found the right medication to help Benjamin. Her health has improved so much that after commencement ended, Benjamin joined her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters Mya Osibogun, Allison St. Claire, and Makenzie Jordon outside of the Watsco Center in a stroll, or a synchronized dance.

Benjamin earned a political science and business law degree on Friday and hopes to go on to law school.

She was one of the many Hurricane graduates posing for photos and celebrating with family and friends outside of the Watsco Center on Friday. Throughout the day, there were three undergraduate ceremonies for a total of about 2.400 students that earned their degrees and wrapped up their four years at the U. Families like that of graduate Leah Castaneda, proudly carried cutouts of her face, hoping to get a photo with the graduate. Her aunt, Paola Ruiz, said 25 of her family members traveled from New Jersey to attend commencement.

Many, like Logan Fernandez-Smith, said it was gratifying to attend an in-person ceremony after most of their high school ceremonies were virtual. Shelsa Menard, a psychology major who hopes to become a dentist, agreed.

“I didn’t get to walk the stage in high school, so this really met my needs,” Menard said.

Meanwhile, couple Jonathan Plata and Stephanie Rigakos celebrated with their families. Plata, a Port St. Lucie, Florida, native who graduated with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, and Rigakos, a Tampa, Florida, native who earned a degree in biology, met during a lab course two years ago, and have been inseparable since. Neither knew anyone at the University of Miami before deciding to attend but met their best friends in Pearson Residential College.

“This has been the best four years of my life, and I’m happy to now be a UM alumnus,” said Plata, who is starting dental school in the fall.

Added Rigakos: “Every year just got better.”

Graduate Monica Gupta, who celebrated with her parents, sister, brother-in-law, and close friend, biology graduate Haley Gye, also lamented the fact that her college years were over.

“It hasn’t really hit me yet because it went by so fast,” said Gupta, who earned a degree in biochemistry.

Nandha Ravi, an architecture graduate, stood outside celebrating and taking photos with his family and friends. Ravi said he feels fortunate that he got a fifth year at the University.

“It’s been a good extra year, and I’m glad I got an extended college experience,” said Ravi, whose parents flew in from Boston for commencement. “UM went through a lot in these last five years, including some great athletic wins with the basketball teams, and it was a really fun experience.”

Communication studies graduate Emma Van Riper and her boyfriend, Max Gieseman, a finance graduate, posed for photos as their parents got a chance to meet each other. Gieseman, from the Washington, D.C. area, and Van Riper, who is from Connecticut, are both staying in Miami after graduation because they loved the city so much.

“Graduating is bittersweet because I loved my time here at UM, and the friends I’ve made, and now we’re all moving to different places, but Emma and I loved Miami so much that we are both staying,” said Gieseman, who is also a Singer Scholar and plans to work at JP Morgan. “It has been a great experience.”

Van Riper, who also did not get a high school graduation ceremony, said that the entire Commencement 2024 experience helped to replace her expectations about the event.

“It’s a full circle moment to have graduation this year after not having one in high school, so I was emotional at the beginning, but this was much more cheerful, which was nice,” she said.