Commencement Volunteers: Behind the Scenes of Pomp and Circumstance

Pitt staff who are volunteering at this year’s University’s undergraduate spring commencement start their day five hours before the April 29 ceremony at the Petersen Events Center — and once it begins, most of their work is already complete.

At the April 19 orientation for this year’s undergraduate and graduate commencements — the latter happening on April 26 — dozens of volunteers gathered at the Pete to review their assignments. Commencement coordinator Jason Morrill, in the Office of Special Events, announced from the start of the training: “We really can’t do this without all your help.”

More than 100 staff members spilt into teams between the two ceremonies. Some will be stationed in strategic spots throughout the Pete to give directions to students and families as they arrive. Others will register students and help them line up for processional activities or escort faculty members who do not wish to take part in the procession to their assigned seats. There are volunteers who will make certain the class marshals are first in line with their banners and that the school marshals are right behind them, dressed in distinctive Beefeater hats and carrying their batons.

For the 1 p.m. undergraduate graduation ceremony, volunteers are scheduled to arrive at 8 a.m. to enjoy a group breakfast, then report to their assignment areas by 10 a.m.

The largest group of graduates — about 1,200 — comes from the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. About a dozen volunteers alone are needed to help the Dietrich School graduates check in. Volunteers must be ready to calmly handle any glitches that arise.

“Believe it or not, some graduates end up here without their caps and gowns,” Morrill said. (Representatives from the University Store on Fifth will have extra regalia for sale that day in the Pete’s fitness center.)

Volunteers Return Year After Year

Longtime volunteers say they return each year because helping to make commencement into a special and successful day for students is tremendously rewarding.

“I love to be there to support and take part in the big day for students,” said 14-year volunteering veteran Mary E. Mollo, administrator for three School of Education departments. “I was once in their shoes, so I know how great it feels to accomplish what they have.” She has performed several jobs at commencement, including as a “rover” who helps show students where to go after receiving their diplomas, but has since moved behind the scenes.

“Graduation is one of the biggest days for the students and I love to be part of it to support and cheer them on,” she said. “It has also been a great opportunity for me to meet other staff, faculty and students throughout the University that I probably wouldn’t meet on a day-to-day basis.”

Laraine Hlatky, associate director of external relations in the Pitt Alumni Association, has been volunteering at commencement since the ceremony moved to the Pete from Mellon Arena in 2003. She works with all the schools apart from the Detrich School on that day.

“Helping the students with their regalia — especially their hoods — makes me feel a part of the ceremony,” Hlatky said.

“The graduates and families are so happy and it is such a joyous time for them that it makes me happy just to be a part of it,” she added.

Camille Burgess, student records manager in the College of Business Administration, spent two decades volunteering at her school’s graduation ceremony before spending the last half-dozen years helping with the larger event at the Pete. “I enjoy watching the students and their proud parents as they receive accolades for their hard work,” she said. “As someone who certifies student academic records for completion of degree requirements, I know how hard they work to get to graduation.”

Morrill told the assembled volunteers without hesitation: “You’re going to love it and you’re going to come back next year.”

If You Go

Graduate Commencement Ceremony

Thursday, April 26
6:30 p.m.
John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center

This ceremony is for candidates of master's, professional and doctoral degrees.

David C. Frederick (A&S ’83) will give the graduate commencement address. An appellate attorney in Washington, D.C., Frederick studied political science and was Pitt’s first-ever recipient of a Rhodes scholarship. He went on to earn a Ph.D. at Oxford and J.D. at the University of Texas. He has argued many cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and has endowed a number of Pitt scholarships.

Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony

Sunday, April 29
1 p.m.
John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center

This ceremony is for candidates of the bachelor’s degree.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (GSPIA ’11) will address the undergraduate class of 2018. Peduto was elected to the office of Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh in the General Election on November 5, 2013, and took office as Pittsburgh’s 60th mayor in January of 2014. Prior to taking office, he worked for 19 years on Pittsburgh City Council. As a councilman, he wrote the most comprehensive package of government reform legislation in Pittsburgh’s history.

Tickets are not required for either ceremony.

You can also watch the ceremonies online — a live video stream will be available during each of the ceremonies. Videos will be available post-commencement. Photos from the events will be posted in real time on Pitt’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages, as well as under the hashtag #PittGrad18.


Marty Levine,, 412-758-4859