LINCOLN — Saul Valdez, 23, was a member of the largest freshman class ever at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when he started at UNL five years ago.
Today, he is a member of UNL's largest-ever graduating class, more than 2,800 students.
You bet he will be among the 1,625 students participating in commencement exercises at 9:30 this morning.
His parents, Francisco and Teresa Valdez, are closing their restaurant in Madison, Neb., for the day so they can come to Lincoln to celebrate his five-year journey to a double degree in international business and Spanish. He expects aunts, uncles and cousins to make the trip to his reception in Lincoln.
“For me, it's a very big deal,” he said. “I'll only be walking 15 to 20 seconds from my chair to the podium, but it's very symbolic. It's going to be very symbolic for my parents. It's just one of those moments I wouldn't want to miss.”
UNL officials credit several factors for today's crowd at the Devaney Center. Good recruiting and record-sized freshman classes in 2007 and 2008 — 4,235 and 4,200 students respectively.
They also say fewer are dropping out, and improved advising is helping students complete degree requirements on time.
It's a trend Chancellor Harvey Perlman expects to continue as UNL progresses toward its goal of boosting enrollment to 30,000 by 2017. Fall enrollment has hovered at 24,600 the past two years.
“It's very satisfying to be graduating a record number of students,” Perlman said Friday. “College-educated talent is key to the success of Nebraska and the country.”
He said he's eager for the new sports and entertainment arena to be completed in Lincoln in 2017 to accommodate even larger graduation classes in the future.
Other University of Nebraska campuses also are anticipating larger than usual crowds, if not records, at commencement ceremonies this weekend.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center is awarding a record 1,015 degrees this spring, an increase of 265 from last year. The major reasons for the increase are nursing program changes, including the decision to change the time frame for an accelerated nursing program so that those students graduate with other nurses in May.
In addition, the first class from a newly established nursing program offered in Norfolk graduates this year. Graduation ceremonies are being held at 10 a.m. today at Omaha's Civic Auditorium and at 4 p.m. at the Gering (Neb.) Civic Center. Other ceremonies were held Thursday and Friday in Norfolk, Lincoln and Kearney.
“This is not expected to be a long-term pattern,” said Dele Davies, UNMC vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of graduate studies. He also noted UNMC enrollment figures fluctuate less than those seen at undergraduate institutions because class sizes are closely tied to the need for medical professionals in the community.
A record number of graduate degrees were awarded this spring at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where commencement ceremonies were held Friday, said spokeswoman Glennis Nagel.
The number of master's degrees grew from 152 last year to 167 this spring. UNK officials credited its online program for teachers who want to get advanced degrees.
With bachelor's degrees included, a total of 647 degrees were awarded this spring, one short of the previous record of 648 total degrees awarded in May 1992.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha is to award 1,500 degrees in ceremonies beginning at 10 a.m. today.
Commencement also is today for Iowa State University, which is awarding about 3,070 undergraduate degrees and 725 advanced degrees, said spokeswoman Annette Hacker.
The bigger graduation class at UNL has meant weeks of hustle for about 10 workers at the registration and records department. Five people work full time in graduation services, conducting senior checks to make sure graduating students have completed all requirements.
More than 3,000 students — another record — applied to graduate in May, but about 200 were winnowed out, mostly because of grades.
Suzanne Higgins, 22, of Grand Island is graduating from UNL today with 154 credit hours — 20 more than required for her degree in biological systems engineering.
But she started college in 2008 with 28 college credits earned in high school. Her college career included running the 800 meters on the track team, joining a sorority, studying abroad in New Zealand and presenting a research paper at an academic conference.
The daughter of a pediatrician and a lawyer, Higgins chose UNL because it accepted all her dual credit courses. “I really wanted to get done in four years,” she said.
She started college intent on solving the energy crisis.
“I wanted to solve the worst problem possible, and I thought that was the worst thing,” she said. “But as I got into it, I found the classes on biology, the human body and medicine were more interesting
“I had the most fabulous time,” said the fourth-generation Husker. “I got to do everything.”
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