CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Sitting high up in the stands inside Kenan Stadium, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz scans the empty seats spanning the field below, envisioning the sea of Carolina Blue caps and gowns that will soon stretch to the end zone.
"Looking out on this field right now, I'm getting excited about the weekend," he said.
This weekend will be a historic one for the nation's first public university, pulling off an in-person commencement in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This is a historic year and the challenges that these students have had to overcome over the past almost year and a half now- we just felt that we needed to do everything possible to have an in-person commencement here in Kenan Stadium which is a wonderful tradition here at Carolina," said Guskiewicz.
UNC will celebrate the Class of 2021 with five ceremonies over the course of the three days on May 14, 15, and 16.
COVID protocols, including face masks, will be in place for the nearly 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students who will attend, as well as their guests; each graduate is allowed to invite up to four people who will sit in pods throughout the stadium.
"We'll still be able to sing 'Hark the Sound' and do all those traditions that normally happen at commencement," said Stacey Warner, Senior Assoc. Dir. University Events. "I think that they are just eager to get here and get their moment and we want to do everything we can to help send them off with the best possible graduation."
To allow for social distancing, there won't be a formal processional as the graduates enter the stadium, but Warner said they will hear pomp and circumstance as they make their way to their seats.
Befitting the times, two of the biggest names in the COVID-19 research, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett will deliver the pre-taped commencement speech.
Corbett, a Carolina alumna and scientific lead at the National Institutes of Health, was instrumental in developing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
"To have her share her personal experiences about Carolina, having grown up just up the road in Hillsborough, it's gonna be special," said Guskiewicz.
Guskiewicz touted vaccines, mandatory testing on campus, and the campus community's commitment to following COVID-19 safety measures as reasons why the in-person commencement was possible one year after the virus forced celebrations to go virtual.
"I know the loss that came with not having that," said Guskiewicz, whose own son is a member of UNC's 2020 graduating class. "So that's why we're gonna make that up to the Class of 2020."
A weekend this October will be dedicated to the Class of 2020.
On game day, those new alumni will get to experience the traditional Bell Tower climb, enjoy a reunion catered with food from local restaurants and food trucks, and the first 4,000 grads to register will get a complimentary ticket to watch the Tar Heels take on the Florida State Seminoles.
Then, on Sunday, Oct. 10, the Class of 2020 will get their day inside Kenan, with the celebration they never had.
On this weekend in May, though, it's about the Class of 2021.
In his speech to the graduates, Guskiewicz will mention the pandemic; he has to. But he wants these Tar Heels to walk out feeling there are better days ahead.
"I want them to leave here feeling inspired, feeling as if they can go out and change the world," he said. "That's what great research universities do is we teach society how to adapt during times of challenge and crisis. That's what we've done."