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UC Irvine Seniors Find Their Final Daze Ends in a Grad Rush

As they prepare for today's graduation ceremonies, students dash among errands, exams and goodbyes.

June 14, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Order cake. Research car rentals. Buy suit. Clean apartment. Cram for English final.

And that was just one day's agenda for UC Irvine senior Franco Morelli's last week before graduation.

One of the university's 5,042 students whose graduation ceremonies are today, Morelli's to-do list reflects the mishmash of errands and emotions required of graduating college students as they prepare to move on.

Morelli, 22, of Sylmar, welcomed the stress, though, since several times during his college career, he said, he was close to not graduating at all.

He was on the brink of flunking out, he said, because he had "the desire but not the knack" to excel in his first major, engineering. He changed to English and philosophy and retook classes until he had an A or B in every one.

"It would have been so easy to give up at so many points during the last five years," he said. "But I made the choice to succeed, and here I am."

Today, Morelli and his fellow graduates won't actually receive diplomas, but instead will be handed pieces of paper informing them their degrees will be mailed in November after all university fees have been paid, library books returned and finals passed.

Confident he'll be getting his diploma come fall, Morelli was consumed with easing the long trip for Argentine relatives flying in for the ceremonies, ordering his own graduation cake, and preparing to move next week.

Morelli will graduate from the School of Humanities in one of the three ceremonies today in the Bren Events Center. Three other graduation ceremonies will be held throughout the day in Aldrich Park at the center of campus, where 9,000 white folding chairs were in position by Wednesday for the graduates and their guests. That night, pranksters overturned several hundred of them. Workers righted them Thursday, and guards monitored the chairs from then on.

In their last days at UC Irvine, many students scrambled to complete a few tasks. More than 800 graduating seniors stood in line for three hours Monday to pick up their late cap-and-gown orders at the Alumni House. An additional 1,000 or so trickled in over the next four days.

Some seniors combined the gown pickup with a gab session. Diana Chao modeled her gown on the patio outside the Alumni House on Thursday for fellow studio art majors Fini Chen and Mandy Wang. After finishing her last exam, Chao said she finally felt done.

The seniors planned to have a leisurely meal and take photos before the pomp and circumstance today.

"We need a chance to sit down and take it all in that we're graduating," said Chao, 23. "Since we're all going our separate ways, I want us to get this time together."

Others trickling out of final exams around campus made a beeline to the library to return books or to the university bookstore to sell back texts. At the store, gridlock formed around the alumni goods as grads stocked up on license-plate frames, polo shirts, and even rubber ducks wearing mortar boards.

"I feel like I have a million things to do before Saturday," said criminology major Heather Burgio, 22. "But I'm not too tired. All the excitement is carrying me through."

While procrastinators finish up, seniors such as Adrian Cruz had to push hard during final exams. Cruz said he held two jobs to put himself through school because his financial aid went to help his family in East Los Angeles.

Buying alumni gear and other errands could wait, Cruz said. Finals were his priority this last week.

Cruz, 22, who graduated from Salesian High School as salutatorian with a 4.2 grade-point average, said he was put on academic probation his freshman year.

"It's hard to read your textbooks when in the back of your mind you're wondering how you're going to eat your next meal," he said.

Cruz's first ever set of low grades shattered his confidence. It wasn't until he joined a fraternity and switched his major from biology to film studies that he found the drive to put effort into his classes. And when he goofed off, Cruz said, his fraternity brothers wouldn't let him participate in activities until he proved he was passing his classes.

"They helped me to see the importance of a degree, so after a while I was able to keep tabs on myself," he said.

Taking a smoking break between a statistics exam and designing a Web page for a final project, Cruz said it didn't bother him that he wasn't able to pull his grades up enough to be invited to Friday night's honors convocation. After five years at the university, he said he'll graduate with "about a 2.5" and hopes to get a job on a film crew making sets.

"I'm happy enough that I finished," Cruz said. "I don't care what my GPA is."

International Studies professor Paula Garb said after 13 years of teaching seniors at the university, she expects nothing less than burnout-induced spaciness and mounting anxiety as graduation looms.

In her office Thursday afternoon, she wished luck to the seniors trooping in with their final papers.

Asked if she gives graduates more leeway in their final quarter, she paused diplomatically, and then told a story.

When Garb came to Irvine and asked another professor for grading tips, he told her to give every senior an A.

"Although I don't do that," she said, "I do think about it a lot. We care about our seniors. They've been through a lot and we understand that."

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