ATHENS — Thousands of students filed into Sanford Stadium under sunny skies, the air warm and breezy with no humidity.

They wore black caps and gowns, many with red stoles, and sat in white folding chairs on a white plastic temporary floor on the grass field, their families in the stands around them, and cheered and smiled and laughed and waved as a University of Georgia jazz ensemble and marching band filled the air with music.

Amid weeks of student demonstrations over the war in Gaza that have spread across many colleges, including briefly on this campus, UGA seniors gathered here Friday night for an undergraduate commencement ceremony that featured plenty of pomp and little protest.

Many seated on the football field hadn’t been able to gather for their high school graduations four springs ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“Many of you had a drive-thru (high school) graduation ceremony or a ceremony conducted on Zoom as you and your family sat together on the sofa in your home,” making Friday night’s commencement “even more special,” Jere Morehead, UGA’s president, told the large crowd.

“I hope you feel a spectacular sense of achievement as we celebrate all that you had to overcome over the past four years and all that awaits you in the bright future ahead,” he added to cheers.

The famous hedges lining the field weren’t as high and manicured as during fall football season. Many of the hedges were pulled up and replanted earlier this spring.

But the stands were nearly half-full in the cavernous stadium, perhaps 40,000 strong, as family, friends, faculty and alumni gathered to honor this year’s more than 8,000 graduating seniors at Georgia’s flagship public university.

Graduates listen to a singer sing Georgia on My Mind at Sanford Stadium during the University of Georgia spring commencement in Athens on Friday, May 10, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)


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While commencement proceeded as planned at UGA, other schools shifted gears in recent days. Columbia University canceled its university-wide commencement ceremony after student-led protests over the Israel-Hamas war. Emory University in Atlanta cited safety concerns and moved its graduation ceremonies off-campus.

UGA’s commencement ceremony Friday came after a planned pro-Palestinian protest at the iconic Arch entrance to the North Campus didn’t materialize at noon. Instead a long line of students — at one time more than 50 people — waited to take graduation photos in their graduation caps and gowns with smiling parents, siblings and grandparents in tow.

Other graduating seniors and their families took photos early Friday afternoon at the Herty Field fountain and rang the bell at the chapel on the sprawling campus of a university that dates back to 1785.

Around 6 p.m., roughly 90 minutes before UGA’s commencement ceremony began, about 10 pro-Palestinian demonstrators started setting up near the Miller Learning Center not far from the stadium. They carried protest signs, and bracelets, flags and graduation stoles in black, white, green and red — colors of the flag of Palestine.

Administration officials told them they could stay, but that the area was reserved for the commencement and that they couldn’t have signs or protest. After about 25 minutes, the group left.

That followed several days of protests last week on or near the UGA campus. University police arrested 16 protesters, including nine students, at a campus demonstration on April 29 against Israel’s war in Gaza.

UGA suspended the arrested students, including at least two seniors, banning them from campus. One of the seniors confirmed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she wasn’t allowed to attend Friday’s commencement, despite more than 200 faculty members petitioning the administration late last week to immediately lift the suspensions.

Protests here in recent weeks ranged from a dozen people to a few hundred people, and included a mix of students and non-students. As they prepared for final exams earlier this month, many on this campus of more than 40,000 students said they were struggling to take sides in a Middle East dispute with roots dating back to well before they were born.

A graduate holds a graduation cap with a pro-Palestinian message in Sanford Stadium during the University of Georgia spring commencement in Athens on Friday, May 10, 2024. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)


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An AJC reporter saw about 20 students take Palestine stoles offered by demonstrators outside Sanford Stadium shortly before the commencement.

Inside the stadium, after the ceremony got underway as scheduled at 7:30 p.m., an AJC photographer saw a few students wearing Palestine stoles and at least one student had written “Divest Now, Free Palestine” on her cap.

But they could hardly be spotted in the sea of seniors. Instead of references to Israel or Hamas, a regular refrain from speakers was “Go Dawgs,” referring to the Georgia Bulldogs, repeat NCAA football champions of the 2021 and 2022 seasons.

Trent Lanier Nesbit, an Athens native and new holder of an economics degree, reminded his classmates to make the rest of their lives better than their college years by continuing to invest in relationships, take risks and “be a Dawg.”

Like Morehead, he began his speech by remarking on his graduating classes’ “remarkable resilience.”

”For most of us, this will be the first graduation that we will ever have,” Nesbit said. “This class knows more than ever what it means that nothing in life is promised, which means that we should cherish every moment.”

Commencement speaker Allison Schmitt, a 10-time Olympic medalist in swimming and a 2014 UGA graduate, also stayed away from the Middle East and also encouraged graduates to be resilient and to take risks.

“Embrace failure as a friend, not a foe. I lost more races than I can count,” before succeeding, Schmitt told the audience.

A little before 9:30 p.m., as the ceremony drew to a close, celebratory fireworks erupted above the Sanford Drive bridge as Glory, Glory, the Bulldogs fight song, played.