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What Goes On Behind The Scenes At Graduation?

For a university with one of the largest undergraduate enrollments in the county, organizing a commencement ceremony is no simple task.

This weekend, Penn State expects to award 13,301 diplomas to students university-wide. A total of 487 associate; 10,895 baccalaureate; 1,322 master’s; 240 law, and 224 doctoral degrees are expected to be received, bringing the university’s number of graduates to an estimated total of more than 740,100.

At University Park alone, more than 10,000 students will receive their diplomas when they cross the stage at either the Bryce Jordan Center or Eisenhower Auditorium on May 9, 10, and 11.

So, how exactly does the university prepare for such a large undertaking?

According to university spokesperson Jill Shockey, commencement is planned years in advance, while specific semester planning begins four months ahead of the anticipated graduation dates with a meeting of all the college commencement coordinators. Led by director of campus and community affairs Barbara Ettaro, planning and organization is a year-round effort.

“As soon as one semester’s commencement has concluded, we begin planning the next one,” says Shockey.

Since each academic college has its own separate ceremony attended by thousands of students and their families and friends, ensuring commencement runs smoothly and efficiently across each campus is a job for hundreds of Penn State faculty and staff. In order to make graduation a memorable experience for all, several key players involved in the planning process must play their part, scrutinizing every part of the ceremony down to the final detail.

The Office of Strategic Communications’ Campus and Community Affairs oversees the entire year’s preparations for University Park, and assists each college with event details like programs, scripts, seating charts, and more. At the Bryce Jordan Center, a team of ushers, guests services, event floor crew, and stage crew are responsible for preparing the arena for the ceremony, including the set-up and teardown of the main stage. There is also a key group of faculty known as University Marshals who are responsible for organizing students, faculty and administrative officials before the ceremonies and make sure the graduates are lined up appropriately before they cross the stage.

To further enhance the experience, Penn State enlists the help of 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, and photographers, just to name a few.

Other key members include commencement speakers; a nomenclator, who reads the students’ names as they cross the stage; an ROTC representative, who recognizes graduates who will be receiving military commissions; and a University Marshal, who acts as master of ceremonies.

Before graduation day arrives and caps and gowns file into their seats filling  in a sea of white and blue, myriad arrangements are made behind the scenes, including programs, scripts, A/V equipment, chairs, tables, banners, extra regalia, decorative plants, and catering.

“Every detail of the entire ceremony is critical to its success, from the national anthem to the calling of student names to the Alma Mater,” says Shockey.

With hotels, dinner reservations, and venues booked years in advance by families of students across the county, Penn State’s tri-annual commencement ceremonies have become a remarkable achievement of preparation. Seeing smiles on the faces of thousands who visit University Park and the 24 commonwealth campuses is well worth the effort, says Shockey, and remains an important final step in recognizing the achievements of the many hard-working graduates.

“From the graduates, of course, to the parents, families, friends and colleagues who have supported the graduates during their years of studies, commencement is a wonderful occasion to honor and the beginning of a significant new chapter in many people’s lives.”

Check out what goes into the setup in this time lapse:

About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.


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