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A Somber Commencement Day At UNC Charlotte

Nick de la Canal

A celebratory atmosphere was weighted by grief at UNC Charlotte's commencement ceremonies this weekend. Students and faculty members paid tribute to the two students killed in a campus shooting on April 30, and to a graduating senior who was among the injured.

Many students and family members who arrived on campus Saturday said they felt sorrow for the two families who would not see their children graduate following the shooting. Among them was Peggy Blankenship of Roanoke, Virginia.

"We're so thankful that our grandson was safe," she said, "but yet my heart goes out to the families that lost their loved ones."

She said she's been praying the families will find peace and solace, and that the university will recover.

The university implented several new security measures for the weekend's ceremonies. Signs posted outside the Halton Arena listed several banned items, including large bags, balloons, banners, and even umbrellas, despite the stormy weather.

Inside the building, visitors were greeted with an array of new airport-like security measures, including metal detectors and security wands.

Once the graduates had filed into arena and taken their seats, the school's chancellor, Philip Dubois, opened the ceremony on a somber note.

"It goes without saying that the tragedy that we experienced on April 30th has shaken Niner Nation and inevitably influenced how we think about today's ceremony," he said.

He called for a moment of silence, which was followed by a tribute from the school's brass ensemble. They performed "An American Elegy," written by Frank Ticheli in the aftermath of the Columbine shooting 20 years ago.

Throughout the ceremony, a handful of speakers referenced the shooting in their remarks. Among them was graduating senior Samuel Adams.

"Two weeks ago, this was a different speech. And two two weeks ago, this was a different campus. Two weeks ago, our community was whole. Now, all of these are changed," he said. "In the words of Chancellor Dubois, we will not emerge unchanged, but we will emerge united and stronger."

Among the sea of kelly green caps and robes was 23-year-old Emily Houpt, one of four students injured in the shooting. Houpt was called to the stage to receive her diploma first, and was recognized with a standing ovation from the crowd.

Seated in the front row was the family of Riley Howell, one of two students killed in the attack. Howell was studying environmental science. When a gunman opened fire inside his classroom, Howell rushed at him and died tackling the shooter to the ground.

Howell's father, Thomas, wiped tears from his face as Provost Joan Lorden presented the family with a degree in memoriam for his son.

"We know that Riley's passing on April 30 leaves your family with a hole that cannot be filled," Lorden said, "but we want you to know that he was an important part of the UNC Charlotte academic community, and our faculty wants to recognize and remember his presence."

The family of Reed Parlier, another student killed in the attack, was also presented with a degree in memoriam earlier Saturday at a ceremony for the college of computing and informatics. The sophomore had been studying computer science.

Chancellor Dubois announced Saturday that two scholarships had been established totalling $1 million to honor the memory of both Parlier and Howell.

"From today forward, each scholarship will enable the spirit and legacy of each of these young men to be present always on our campus," he said.

The university has not yet made plans for a permanent memorial to the victims, but it has created a remembrance commission that's tasked with making recommendations for a future remembrance.

Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal