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a row of students sitting in graduation regalia, one of their caps is decorated with flowers and a quote 'from passion to action'

As the saying goes, “Hope springs eternal.” That adage is particularly poignant on virtually every college campus this time of year. And the University of Utah is no exception. Over the next week, thousands of students will bask in the accomplishment of graduating with a newly minted degree and the optimism that comes with having a future full of possibilities right in front of them.

Over 100 students were recognized during their participation in the Celebrating U Completely: Graduate Celebration. Hosted in partnership with Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) and Alumni Relations, “the Celebrating U Completely: Graduate Celebration stands as an illustration of inclusivity and recognition, underscoring the profound significance of honoring the journey and achievements of every graduate,” the EDI website states. “In a world where diversity enriches the fabric of our shared humanity, this event serves as a poignant reminder of the value of celebrating the unique and diverse stories of each graduate.”

David Mauricio Leon Alvarado receives a congratulatory hug from Lori McDonald
David Mauricio Leon Alvarado receives a congratulatory hug from VP Lori McDonald.

Among those honored was David Mauricio Leon Alvarado, who earned a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy. He said navigating his way through college and graduate school is something he could hardly have imagined as a young person growing up.

“I started this journey as an undocumented student,” he said. “I never fully saw the finish line. I saw myself in these places, but kind of not being here. It’s really important to see all the work that my mom and all those others that were part of my journey has paid off.”

“It’s a really joyful moment to be able to see the fruit of the seeds they planted,” Leon Alvarado said. “It’s a combination of all the people that are part of my life and all the people who have influenced me to be able to be here. I’m so thankful!”

One of the featured speakers during the ceremony was Debbie Adebunmi, who earned a master’s in healthcare administration. Two years ago, she and her family immigrated to Utah from their native Nigeria so she could attend graduate school at the U.

She said despite reading rather disparaging comments about the Beehive State during her research on educational opportunities in the United States, they took a leap of faith to come to Utah and pursue her scholastic dreams.

Debbie Adebunmi speaks into a podium microphone
Debbie Adebunmi shares her educational journey with her classmates and guests.

“I applied to about 21 schools and five of them were willing to give scholarships and the University of Utah was one of them,” Adebunmi said. “We did the worst thing. We went online to read about the state of Utah and that was the biggest mistake because they were all negative things—like 10 reasons not to move to Utah as a Black person and all that. But after all that, my husband and I decided to pray about it and by a leap of faith we showed up here to give it a go.”

She said their experience in Utah has been completely contrary to the negative things they had read about. People have been kind and welcoming and her kids have come to love fry sauce.

Educationally speaking, she said having access to resources through EDI was key to her finding community and helping her achieve her academic goals.

Lori McDonald gives celebratory remarks at the Celebrating U Completely: Graduate Celebration
Vice President Lori McDonald gives celebratory remarks at the Celebrating U Completely: Graduate Celebration.

“I’m the only Black person in my program and sometimes that can make you feel out of place sometimes to be honest,” Adebunmi said. “Being able to have that community where you can see someone who looks like you that has probably gone through the same journey is comforting. Sometimes you just want to be in a community of people that shows me I’m not alone.”

Lori McDonald, vice president of Student Affairs, said while this ceremony may not be continuing in the same way, the work and principles of supporting historically underrepresented students will live on.

“The work of supporting communities of students that can bring their whole selves to the campus, to their academics, to their success, is what we will continue,” she said. “The program might be changed a little bit, but there’s still going to be a celebration of students and their whole humanity.”