Planning, collaboration ensure memorable commencement for graduating students

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- On May 3, 4 and 5, nearly 9,100 students are expected to cross the stage at either the Bryce Jordan Center or Eisenhower Auditorium, as Penn State holds commencement ceremonies at University Park.

That same weekend, approximately 3,400 additional students will receive degrees at other Penn State campuses across the Commonwealth. On May 11, Penn State Law will hold commencement for an estimated 246 graduates, and on May 19, 213 students -- 141 medical students and 72 graduate students -- are expected to receive degrees from the College of Medicine at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Making sure commencement ceremonies run smoothly and are a meaningful and memorable experience for everyone requires careful planning, collaboration and hard work by hundreds of Penn State staff and faculty members.

This weekend on the University Park campus, each academic college as well as the Graduate School will have a separate ceremony. Attending the ceremonies will be thousands of family members and friends, eagerly watching their loved ones receive their hard-earned degrees and participating in one of life’s major milestones.

"We usually have an average of more than 50,000 people come through our doors this weekend," said Al Karosas, associate general manager at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Making sure commencement ceremonies run smoothly and are a meaningful and memorable experience for everyone requires careful planning, collaboration and hard work by hundreds of Penn State staff and faculty members, according to Barbara Ettaro in the Office of University Relations. As director of campus and community affairs, Ettaro oversees and coordinates all of the commencement ceremonies at University Park.

“The success of our commencement is first and foremost due to the meticulous planning and organization of everyone involved,” said Ettaro. “We try to make it as stress-free as possible for our graduates. They deserve a fitting celebration for all their hard work, and we try to give it to them."

Penn State holds three commencements each year at the University Park campus: spring, summer and fall. Dates are reserved years in advance to guarantee the availability of the appropriate venues, and are dictated by the academic calendar. This ensures that students’ parents and families can make arrangements in as far in advance as possible.

Ettaro and her assistant, Linda Padisak, start planning for the following year's University Park ceremonies immediately after finishing the current one. Spring is the largest and requires the most collaboration. Efforts begin in January with a meeting of all the college commencement coordinators. Each college's staff is responsible for arranging many of the details for their own ceremonies in the spring, in collaboration with Ettaro’s office.

At the University Park campus, efforts begin in January with a meeting of all the college commencement coordinators, as each college's staff is responsible for arranging many of the details for their spring commencement ceremonies.

For every ceremony, myriad arrangements must be made: facilities, programs, scripts, A/V equipment, chairs, tables, banners, extra regalia, decorative plants, catering -- the list goes on and on. Everything is carefully planned down to the last detail.

"For instance, where public seating starts, which side they process in and recess out, who meets in the conference room, and how and where the graduates line up," said Lisa Faust, audience services manager at Eisenhower Auditorium, describing a few of the many particulars that must be addressed at that venue. "Without my front of house event staff, it wouldn't be possible."

Each college's details differ, so Faust makes a "cheat sheet" for her 20-25 staff and volunteers, who work about 23 hours each between Friday and Saturday.

Platform party members also must be chosen for each event. A platform party may consist of Penn State's president or executive vice president and provost, a member of the Board of Trustees, a Penn State Alumni Association representative, college deans and department heads.

The University Marshal corps are a dedicated group of more than 20 faculty volunteers who are responsible for organizing students, faculty and administrative officials before the ceremonies, and making sure students know when and where to cross the stage.

Other key members may include a nomenclator, who reads the students' names as they cross the stage; an ROTC representative, who recognizes graduates who will be receiving military commissions; a University Marshal, who acts as master of ceremonies; and a speaker, who imparts special words of wisdom to the students as they transition from one stage of life to the next.

Robert Melton, professor of aerospace engineering and director of undergraduate studies, is in charge of the University Marshal corps. The corps consists of a dedicated group of more than 20 faculty volunteers who are responsible for organizing students, faculty and administrative officials before the ceremonies, and making sure students know when and where to cross the stage. In short, the marshals' job is "making certain that everything appears to go perfectly according to plan," he said.

Melton, who has been a member of the corps since 1983, added, "I love the wonderful celebratory atmosphere. There's a sense of excitement before each ceremony begins. So many extended families and close friends travel great distances to be here, and they're all smiling as the procession begins."

These are only a few of the hundreds of people that will eventually come together in this collaborative effort, including facilities managers, Centre Brass musicians, student song leaders from the School of Music, faculty-at-large, ushers, student marshals, police representatives, house managers, emergency medical technicians, sign language interpreters, photographers -- the list of participants from all over the University goes on and on.

"For most of the graduates and some of the guests in attendance this is one of the most important events in their lives."

 Al Karosas, associate general manager, 

Bryce Jordan Center

"While it may seem to the public that, 'Well it's the same event every time,' that couldn't be further from the truth," said Karosas. "Each college and speaker has their own needs, has a different amount of graduates, a varied floor plan, etc. Even the average amount of family and friends differ between each college. Therefore, it is very important for all of the people involved in planning this event to make sure all of the i's are dotted and t's are crossed. For most of the graduates and some of the guests in attendance this is one of the most important events in their lives."

Though overall it may seem that every commencement is similar, University photographer Patrick Mansell said that there's one thing that distinguishes every event.

"There's so much tradition and history in the ceremony," he said. "The caps and gowns remain the same, the music, the processions -- yet the smiling faces of the students and families are unique. That's the key for me -- understanding that, to every student, this is their graduation day. The graduates themselves are what make every ceremony special."

Spring commencement, by virtue of the number of students who graduate at that time of the year, is the largest and involves the most people. Ettaro’s office handles all the arrangements for the summer and fall ceremonies at University Park.

The weekend is intense and challenging, says Ettaro, but also exciting and satisfying.

"When you see the smiles on the students' faces," she said, "it's all worth it."

The hundreds of people who collaborated to help Penn State’s students receive their degrees in style this spring might take a day or two to rest and regroup, but planning for the next commencement this summer will not be far behind.

This spring Penn State expects to award, University-wide, a total of approximately 12,821 diplomas to students who are completing 568 associate, 10,296 baccalaureate, 1,346 master's, 141 medical, 246 law and 223 doctoral degrees. (Figures listed are estimates as of April 1; totals do not include Penn College.)

For more information about Penn State Commencement, visit http://commencement.psu.edu/. For individual college and campus event and speaker details, visit http://news.psu.edu/story/271563/2013/04/03/academics/penn-state-announces-spring-2013-commencement-events-and-speakers.
 

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Last Updated May 02, 2014