Before thousands of soon-to-be University of Iowa alumni venture off into the career market, many of them will make one last pit stop before leaving campus: commencement.
Behind all of the flat hats, pomp, and circumstance, a team of University staff and faculty has been working for months to ensure that everything—from setting up chairs to double-checking name spellings in programs to preparing a 15,500-seat area—runs smoothly.
Leading that pack are Marcia McNamara, assistant registrar, and Julie Fell, senior associate director of enrollment services in the UI Office of the Registrar, who help organize commencement ceremonies for all colleges along with collegiate staff.
The two begin planning almost immediately after the previous semester’s ceremonies end, securing public safety, sign language interpreters, musicians, photographers, and apparel. As the semester rolls on, McNamara and Fell prepare printed programs and scripts and update commencement web sites.
In the days leading up to the ceremonies, the spotlight shifts from behind-the-scenes details to staging. As Facilities Management staff members set up stages and hundreds of chairs, McNamara and Fell work with administrators from each college to organize where UI officials, faculty, and students will sit and where the long processional lines of graduates will snake through the crowd—not to mention where they will position themselves.
All UI colleges provide staff for their own commencements, but McNamara, Fell, and about 40 other Registrar staff members are present at larger ceremonies, ready to “troubleshoot,” as Fell puts it. That may include lining up students for the processional, handing out programs, or simply corralling the masses.
Graduating students are not required to attend commencement, but Jill Gerot, secretary in the College of Engineering, estimates that almost all engineering students participate in their college’s ceremony, likely due to the college’s “very close relationship” with its students.
Gerot says that planning the College of Engineering’s “short and sweet” graduation ceremony is not too difficult. But, like many parts of the University, its commencement has been deeply affected by the May 2008 floods.
Before the flood, eight of the University’s 10 commencement ceremonies were staged in Hancher Auditorium. When the venue was closed due to water damage, organizers were forced to find alternate facilities, such as the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Coralville and the Iowa Memorial Union Main Lounge, where the College of Engineering will hold its ceremonies May 15.
“Hancher did everything for us,” Gerot says. “So it’s been a little more challenging, but we’ve made it work as best we can.”
The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) holds the University’s largest commencement ceremony; Peter Hubbard, CLAS director of student academic services, said the college’s graduation ceremony is the University’s largest nonathletic public event.
Jennifer Bertrand, associate director of CLAS student services, and McNamara are in charge of planning the college’s commencement. This semester’s event will be Bertrand’s first for CLAS, so she has been working closely with her predecessor, Hubbard, who has helped coordinate 33 commencements for the college since 1993.
“Arranging for that many people to be in one place at one time is certainly a challenge,” Bertrand says. “But I think everyone in the college and at the University knows the importance of the ceremony.”
Among the more unusual aspects of this semester’s CLAS commencement will be the presentation of three honorary degrees. Bertrand said typically, the college confers just one honorary degree per ceremony.
A common trait that most colleges share is having a student speaker address the graduating class at the ceremony. Colleges have varying methods of selecting those students: some have graduates vote, some solicit nominations from faculty, and others, like CLAS, set up a committee of students and faculty that sends applications to those graduating with highest distinction.
“I’ve always enjoyed getting the applications back and reading what the students say,” Hubbard says. “It’s like seeing several snapshots of the state of the University.”
With dozens of staff members and faculty spending months arranging both large, daunting projects and minute details, commencement planning is, in the end, a cooperative process that transcends departmental boundaries.
“Putting on a graduation ceremony is very much a collaborative effort,” Hubbard says. “No one office is responsible for everything. We all have to work together to get everything to come together.”
by Jake Jensen