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UNM athlete graduates get emotional, virtual sendoff

Parking wasn’t a problem.

Anyone wanting a jolt of caffeine or quick snack to make it through the usual graduation speeches need only walk to their refrigerator.

And aunts, uncles and friends from around the world could take part without having to make the trip to Albuquerque, although the occasional comment in a YouTube chat window sure didn’t seem to have the same effect as the ear-piercing shrieks of that proud momma sitting in the Pit bleachers when her baby’s name was called.

Sure, there were some benefits to Saturday’s “Unleashing the Pack” virtual graduation ceremony held by the University of New Mexico Athletics Department for spring semester graduates who played Lobo sports. But it wasn’t quite the same as the pomp and circumstance as the real thing.

“For me, it’s always been about the expressions on the graduating seniors faces as they walk across that stage, they get that diploma and the expression and engagement with their family in the audience,” noted Lobo Club Executive Director Jalen Dominguez in his speech before reminding all those are just symbolic moments that represent the achievement by all the graduates – ceremony or not.

The athletic department did its best to honor its Lobo graduates, as Chris Baca, Assistant Athletic Director for Student Development explained in an interview on Friday afternoon, in the best way possible despite the current public health crisis not allowing an in-person ceremony. The department wanted more than just social media posts to recognize the Spring 2020 graduates, she said.

The hour-long ceremony streamed on YouTube and Facebook and featured eight speakers and a video presentation recognizing the spring sports graduates. There were 56 graduates mentioned or shown on the video, including a one-second slide of Simon Spangenberg, a former member of the now-eliminated Lobo men’s soccer program.

Former UNM football player Nahje Flowers was awarded a posthumous degree in Sign Language Interpreting, a field in which he’d have starred, one of his instructors noted in a special video tribute.

Nahje Flowers, late UNM football player

“He showed care, compassion and respect that can not be taught in the classroom,” said Amanda Lujan, lecturer in UNM’s Sign Language Interpreting program.

Graduates were asked to send in a 10-second video clip for the video collage, which included some athletes donning their caps and gowns walking across the screen as though they were walking across the stage to accept their diploma. Several shared screen time with their dogs. Former Lobo men’s basketball player Corey Manigault was home in Maryland popping a bottle of champagne with friends. Even Lobo football player Teton Saltes, who is still playing for the Lobos as a graduate student, was seen driving a riding lawn mower across the screen, pumping his arm.

Senior speaker Natasha Dark, a St. Pius graduate and now a UNM graduate after four years of competing on the Lobos swimming & diving team, said the silver lining of the current global situation might be that a group of athletes “so used to moving at rocket speed from practice to classes and back to practice again” might now have the opportunity to take a breath and appreciate their time at UNM.

“With the near impossibility for planning for the future right now,” she said, “we have been allowed the opportunity to look towards our past and truly live in the present in our lives.”

Of course, nobody denied the harsh realities of the uncertainty ahead for 2020 graduates.

“Being forced to take this break from ordinary life has been paradoxically relaxing and unsettling,” Dark said.

The list of speakers included Baca, Dark, Dominguez, UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez, UNM President Garnett Stokes, UNM Alumni Letterman Association President Sheila Mendez and keynote speaker Olivia Ferrier, a former UNM soccer player and currently a nurse in the Medical Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at UNM Hospital.

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