Grads, families, friends enjoy return to in-person Watts College convocation

Fall ceremony at arena was first of its kind since 2019; 726 earned degrees


Watts College, convocation, fall 2021, graduation, ASU, Dean Cynthia Lietz

Dean Cynthia Lietz congratulates a graduate at the fall 2021 Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions convocation Dec. 14 at Desert Financial Arena at Arizona State University's Tempe campus.

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In-person convocation returned to the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions on Tuesday evening in a lively ceremony recognizing many challenges students overcame to reach their educational goals.

Hundreds of graduates joined their families, friends and professors in the sheer enjoyment of being together at the college’s first full-scale, in-person convocation event since 2019. Arizona State University officially conferred a total of 726 degrees to Watts College graduates.

The ASU basketball venue in Tempe had gained a new name, Desert Financial Arena, since the last time Watts College faculty and graduates gathered there to celebrate.  

Attendees wore facial coverings, a reminder of the ongoing presence of the pandemic. To combat the spread of COVID-19, ASU held virtual ceremonies in spring and fall 2020, with the college conducting its spring 2021 convocation allowing only graduates and selected faculty members to participate in person.

In fall 2021, 393 Watts graduates earned bachelor’s degrees and 333 earned master’s degrees. Nine doctoral degree recipients received their hoods after their degrees conferred earlier in August.

In her first public remarks since being named dean earlier Tuesday, Watts College Dean and President’s Professor of Social Work Cynthia Lietz paid tribute to this year’s graduating class. She applauded the graduates for achieving positive results despite the impediments wrought by the pandemic and by a harsh and volatile national political environment.

“There is no question that we are confronted by many complex problems in our world today. It is so easy to get discouraged by the ongoing implications related to the COVID-19 pandemic, by a polarized political climate fueled by increasing mistrust of public institutions and by acts of discrimination and violence that are both personal and systemic,” Lietz said. “With that said, I can say with great confidence that the graduates of this college are in fact a dramatic contrast to these examples. Instead, you represent all that is good about our world today.”

Lietz told the graduates their tenacity paid off through helping people.

“What I notice about our graduates is that you do not shy away from these difficult issues. Instead, you face the very things that discourage us head on, with an unwavering commitment to a simple goal — to make the world a better place,” Lietz said.

Associate Dean Chandra Crudup shared stories with the gathering about the college’s five fall 2021 Outstanding Graduates: Abdulkadir Abdi of the School of Public Affairs, Rachel Henderson of the college’s Interdisciplinary Programs, Abiud Hernandez-Garcia of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Edie Mestas of the School of Social Work and Dana Rowitz of the School of Community Resources and Development.

Crudup also recognized members of the graduating class who had similar experiences to those of the Outstanding Graduates, including being a first-generation college graduate, a military veteran, one raising a family or with employment responsibilities, or one with plans to pursue graduate study.

Lietz also paid special tribute to ASU Online students attending either in person inside the arena or viewing the convocation from other cities, states and nations. Several dozen online graduates rose to the applause of family, friends and faculty as Lietz recognized them.

The ceremony concluded with hundreds of large maroon and gold balloons cascading from the arena’s rafters. Graduates took some of the balloons home as souvenirs.

Graduates interviewed inside the arena talked about special memories of their time at Watts College and the meaning of attending the convocation in person.

Amber Mathews said she will treasure the many relationships she built.

“I met a lot of nice people from different states and different places whom I never would have met,” said Mathews, who earned a Master of Social Work. “I’m excited and so happy that (the convocation) is in person and our families could join us.”

Jacob Woo, who earned a Bachelor of Science in tourism development and management, said college taught him much about himself: “I’m a grown man now, no longer a little kid,” he said.

“I learned self-reflecting,” recalled Tiffany Steinbach, who earned a Bachelor of Science in tourism and recreation management, “taking time to think about what life sends me and how to react.”

Iliana Hernandez, who earned a Master of Social Work, said she graduated in 2020 but missed out on having an in-person ceremony due to the global pandemic: “I never thought I would be able to do this. But we worked so hard. It was important for me to come back.”

“I’m done!” exclaimed Christopher Stole, who received a Master of Arts in criminal justice. Stole said he wants to be a police officer and has applied to the Gilbert Police Department. He said a favorite professor is one of his job references.

Melody Olotu, who received a Bachelor of Social Work, said returning to the arena was a bit sentimental since she had participated in her high school graduation ceremony there. “I learned empathy, the first thing you learn,” she said of her academic experience. Olotu said she intends to pursue a master’s degree in social work.

For Tricia Rodriguez, who earned a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice, this week’s commencement and convocation ceremonies came at just the right time. Her twin daughters are also ASU students.

“My goal was to graduate before them,” she said.

She barely made it, as one daughter has only one class to go before graduating in May 2022. Rodriguez said she ordinarily wouldn’t have attended the convocation, but her daughters felt otherwise.

“I’m here because they’re excited for me,” she said.

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