‘Perfect storm’ of graduates causes overcrowding, parking problems at commencement
Attendees at the Texas A&M University-San Antonio commencement ceremony complained about overcrowded seating, wait-time for parking and long walks from distant parking spots on May 17 at the Freeman Coliseum.
Both university and coliseum officials attributed those issues to phenomenal growth within the city of San Antonio and the campus.
Raymond and Teresa Nunez said they waited 45 minutes to park and were told no more seats were available for them to see the graduation.
They came to support their niece, Priscilla Marine Ortegon, who graduated with her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies.
“The parking was horrible,” Raymond Nunez said in an interview at the commencement ceremony. “It’s about a mile from there (parking lot) to here and all of the parking lots at the front are empty.”
JC Hrubetz, general manager of the Freeman Coliseum, said the distance is far less than a mile and he did not consider what happened during the commencement ceremony to be a problem. He said he did think it was challenging due to the limited amount of infrastructure.
He said 50 percent of the Freeman’s perimeter is inaccessible and drivers can only access the coliseum from two streets, including a residential area on Houston Street.
“Unfortunately when you’re bringing in any more than 4-5,000 people to this property, you’re gonna have traffic back up,” he said in an interview on May 24.
“Those people who do not prepare and come early enough, they end up waiting in line,” Hrubetz said.
Teresa Nunez, 67, said they had to pay $10 for parking after waiting so long.
“I feel sorry for the ladies with their walkers who had to walk so far. So many people,” she said. “It was not well coordinated.”
Raymond Nunez added: “There’s like three acres of parking in the front. They made us go all the way in the back. That’s unheard of.”
Hrubetz said the parking lot gates opened two hours before the event.
“It’s kind of like the old adage ‘the early bird gets the worm,’” he said.
Freeman shares parking with AT&T
Hrubetz said the AT&T Center and Freeman Coliseum are on the same property and share parking lots.
“Just by unfortunate coincidence the graduation fell on a night when they had an Ariana Grande concert,” he said of the AT&T Center.
The Freeman uses lots 1, 9 and 8. However, an agreement with the AT&T Center allows the AT&T to use lot 1 for its events, such as concerts and Spurs games.
“We’ve done a number of graduations during the Spurs playoff games,” he said, adding that those situations are “a little bit more challenging than the other night to be quite honest with you.”
University President Cynthia Teniente-Matson said every university reserves their dates years ahead of time.
“I know there was a big concert tonight but when we book our graduations, our dates are set three years ahead of time,” she said after a post-commencement faculty and staff party on May 17 at the Freeman Coliseum.
She said concerts pop up and the university does not get notified.
“We don’t know unless we’re scanning that,” Matson said. “Even so we couldn’t change our dates.”
She said A&M-San Antonio always has graduation on Fridays in the spring.
Usher runs out of ceremony programs
Katherine, an employee for BR Ushering, the third-party usher staffing company at the Freeman. She said she did not want to disclose her last name.
Katherine said she ushered the graduation for the University of the Incarnate Word at the Freeman with more graduating students than A&M-San Antonio, and even with more students there were lots of empty seats.
She said there were no more graduation programs to give out and that they ran out of general and Americans with Disabilities Act seating.
“I’ve never seen it full around the whole arena,” she said. “We might actually stop letting people in at some point.”
Jeanette De Diemar, vice president for university advancement and external relations at A&M-San Antonio, said the university produced 6,400 commencement ceremony programs and that a commencement ceremony program is an important piece of the university experience.
Every graduate received a program, which was placed on his or her chair, De Diemar said in an interview on May 29.
She said the university will be addressing the issue and ensure, “first and foremost that graduates would have a copy and at least one per family.”
“It’s a memento for commencement and it’s something for people to cherish and keep over the years,” De Diemar said.
Overcrowded seating spills into concourse
Raymond and Teresa Nunez were seated in the Freeman’s concourse area. They listened to the graduation through the broadcast system.
He said the seating did not bother him as much as the parking situation.
But it bothered other guests.
Vanessa Nino attended to support her cousin, Sonya Woodruff, who graduated with her Bachelor of Arts. She said Woodruff has a spouse, three kids and that it took her six years to obtain her degree.
“I’m happy and proud of her,” she said, standing in the concourse area, not able to find a seat to watch the graduation.
“I feel uncomfortable that I wasn’t able to join my family,” Nino said.
Hrubetz said the coliseum has 12,000 seats for graduations, and 12,069 people attended the A&M-San Antonio commencement.
Jessica Loudermilk, chief of staff at A&M-San Antonio, said not only were there more guests per graduating student, there were more graduates present at the commencement ceremony.
She said in 2017, 65 percent of 660 eligible students walked the stage. In 2019, 75 percent of 945 graduates participated in the ceremony as the largest graduating class in the university’s history.
“We have known that we’re getting increasingly crowded in the Freeman,” she said in an interview May 29. “I think that’s because we had the perfect storm of more graduates.”
“It’s what I call a champagne problem,” she said. “Because it’s actually a wonderful thing that we’re graduating more students and it’s wonderful that they have so many friends and family supporting them.”
Vickie C., who preferred not to give her last name, stood outside the arena bowl entrance at the concourse area listening to the ceremony through the broadcast system. She went to graduation to see Kameka Webb graduate with a bachelor’s degree in criminology.
“They need to add a jumbotron out here in the hallway to see everything,” she said.
Amari Russell went to support her sister, Maia Russell, who graduated with her Bachelor of Arts in English. She said it took her sister seven years and that she will start going to A&M-San Antonio in the fall of 2019.
“It’s so cool and exciting being here supporting my sister,” she said.
She said she was not able to sit with her family due to the limited seating. She was standing in the hallway in front of the concession stand, eating nachos and she said she was not upset about it.
“I think it’s amazing,” Russell said. “It’s the newest branch of A&M and it’s growing.”
De Diemar said the university appreciates people speaking up and sharing feedback.
“As the institution continues to grow, it’s important for us to look at capacity of where we host events, something that’s a signature event, important to students — what are our options?” she said. “I’m excited to say that we’ve started looking at this.”
Loudermilk said getting feedback from friends and family from the event is something the university can introduce in future commencement ceremonies.
“It’s our respect for how important that day is — not just to the graduate,” she said, “but to the family that supported them along the way to achieving that academic goal.”