‘Unity and strength’: After deadly shooting, UNC Charlotte celebrates solemn graduation

They streamed into the stands in dark green gowns, as the ring of “Pomp and Circumstance” filled the room. One by one, they went up to the stage to shake the dean’s hand, some dancing and posing to cheers.

By all measures, it could have been — it was supposed to have been — a day of celebration. This was a hard-earned step across the finish line, perhaps one that had been decades in the making. Maybe they were the first in their family to reach this point.

But for many of the students graduating from UNC Charlotte on Friday and Saturday, that step across the finish line here was not nearly as sweet.

“It goes without saying that the tragedy we experienced on April 30th has shaken Niner Nation,” Chancellor Phil Dubois told the crowd, a white ribbon pinned to his gown, “and inevitably influenced how we think about our ceremony today.”

Less than two weeks ago, yards away from the stadium, some of the green-gowned seniors had hidden under desks in the library for hours on the last day of classes. Others had walked outside buildings with their hands raised, receiving alerts from the university telling them to “run, hide, fight.”

And one graduating senior, 23-year-old Emily Houpt, had been shot during her last class period of class — her favorite of college, she said — when a former classmate entered the room with a handgun.

Less than two weeks later, she was the first called up to the stage. The chancellor handed her a framed diploma, to a standing ovation from the crowd.

“It feels like a relief,” Houpt told the Observer on Friday about graduating. “I have worked hard for it, and I’m glad it’s happening.”

But it didn’t happen the way it was supposed to.

It happened after a moment of silence, after a band performed “An American Elegy,” written to honor the victims and survivors of the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado 20 years ago.

It happened as two students — sophomore Ellis “Reed” Parlier and junior Riley Howell — were awarded degrees in memoriam, their family members coming up to the stage to accept diplomas for their sons.

And it happened as Dubois announced $1 million total in endowed scholarships, thanks to an anonymous donation, to honor the two victims of the shooting:

“From today forward,” Dubois said, “each scholarship will enable the spirit and legacy of each of these young men to be present here on campus always.”

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The family of Riley Howell receives his diploma during UNC Charlotte commencement exercises on Saturday, May 11, 2019. Howell died in the UNC Charlotte campus shooting on April 30. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

In the morning ceremony, Morhan Al Jurdi, an engineering major, told his classmates they had displayed “great unity and strength,” showing the world “that we are indeed a family and that we are indeed Charlotte strong.”

In the afternoon, communication studies major Samuel Adams praised the university for rallying together.

“Two weeks ago, this was a different campus. Two weeks ago, our community was whole,” he said, but “the faculty, staff and student body have truly come together as a family.”

Houpt was more succinct about it all.

“I don’t want this to ever happen again,” she said.

Her last class of college was supposed to be a presentation about the history of medical procedures, the culmination of so many of her academic interests: social science, inequality, international studies. Now, she’s trying not to let that incident define her college experience.

She wants to extend her gratitude to everyone who has helped her — campus maintenance workers, the university, the student activist groups that have emerged in the wake of the shooting: Real Change Now and the UNCC chapter of March for Our Lives.

Her mom, Ellen, said she is proudest of her daughter for “getting through it.”

“She’s winning. She’s not letting this get her down. She’s a survivor.”

For now, though, Emily is focusing on seeing her friends and family, and on healing.

She has her job at a grocery store, she said, and then there’s the job search, but for now, she will let life “just get back to normal for a little bit,” she said.

That perhaps began Saturday evening, as the ceremony carried on as it did every year: The crowd of students in green moved their tassels from the right to the left, becoming graduates. A ring came from the UNC Charlotte bell.

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