It’s been months since I photographed the Hilltop Send-Off of the St. Edward’s University class of 2017. However, I still remember that evening; the moments of happiness and excitement on the graduates’ faces; the moments of tight hugs and promises of staying in touch. Hilltop Send-Off is an event at St. Edward’s University that honors the graduates by doing a Legacy Walk around campus, walking through our iconic red doors, and ending up on Main Building Lawn for champagne, cake, and congratulations.
I drove up to the familiar rec center wearing yoga pants, a shirt, and a light jacket - a completely different outfit than the one I wore a year before as a graduate attending Hilltop Send-Off. Campus was more familiar to me then since I had been visiting weekly with shooting graduation portraits, so it felt a little less strange to be back at my alma mater.
All through the day there was a chance of a huge rain storm, and with the weather constantly changing in Texas, I knew the Transitional Experiences Council, the student organization in charge of Hilltop Send-Off, would be running around trying to get everything situated for the “rain plan”. I found Jason, the student in charge of the event that year, and checked in with him quickly then got out of the way. The event is usually held outside on the Main building lawn overlooking the Austin skyline, but resorting to the rain plan meant moving the cake, champagne, music, balloon arch, photo booth, and everyone inside to the rec center. I tried to help the team where I could, witnessing during my St. Ed’s years that help is welcomed when it comes to pulling off an event. A little while later, I checked in with Marisa Lacey, the university staff member in charge of the Transitional Experiences Council. I knew Marisa well from working under her as an Orientation Coordinator and the Project Manager for the Student Life graphic design team. She was stressed. I did what I could to help, even if that meant stepping back and waiting.
Students started trickling into the rec center wearing their cap and gowns. I made out faces including the seniors that I photographed over the course of the month. They were all so excited. I hugged and gave congratulations to the ones I knew, took photos of the graduates greeting one another, and then made my way to prepare to photograph the Legacy Walk around campus. When I walked outside, I hit a wall of humidity. Had it really gotten that humid in such a short period of time? I walked across campus and made my way to the Main Building lawn where friends and families lined up to yell out well wishes to the grads as they walked by. Stationing myself on the grass area where the students wouldn’t be walking, I waited for the students to make the grand exit through the red doors. It seemed like we were waiting for a good while until the students came out. I remember how last year I was more concerned with not tripping while I walked down the Main Building stairs rather than how long our ceremony was taking.
The graduates filed out the Red Doors and continued with the procession around campus back into the rec center for the rest of the celebration. For the next few hours, I milled around capturing photos of friends and classmates toasting one another. It was definitely a surreal moment for me - only one year ago I was one of those students in a black cap and gown holding the St. Edward’s University champagne fluke. I did see a lot more decorated caps this year than when I graduated. I have much love for the students that did Harry Potter themed caps.
My hope for all those students as they celebrated this accomplishment is that they always remember this moment: the happiness and joy that comes from completing a huge goal and being surrounded by friends.