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April 19, 2007

Making Pitt Work:

Special Events staff coordinate commencement

April 29. It’s the day Pitt seniors have been waiting for. At 1 p.m. a parade of faculty and students in academic regalia will process through the doors of the Petersen Events Center. Amid pomp and circumstance and cheers and tears, less than three hours later the newest alumni of the University of Pittsburgh will leave the building officially having been conferred their bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees.

Pitt’s commencement convocation is the largest and, many would say, most important event on campus. The fact that commencement is among the final memories Pitt students take with them weighs heavily, said commencement coordinator Jason Morrill of Pitt’s Office of Special Events. Morrill is in charge of the seven Special Events staff members and the army of more than 100 volunteers who ensure that commencement runs smoothly and contains the proper memorable mix of decorum and celebration. “It’s a very unique event,” said Morrill. “Every department of the University is affected and involved.”

From the academic areas that provide the lists of graduates, to police and parking and the Petersen Center staff, Morrill is in charge of organizing it all. The day of the event, he, along with Graham Park, who heads the Office of Special Events, Tom Misuraca of the Office of Student Life, and Dick Howe, who leads the event’s roving marshals, supervise the action after months of planning.

Although the final weeks before commencement require many late nights and early mornings, the event itself is taken in stride. “It’s a major undertaking in a big sense,” said Park, but at the same time just business as usual for the events planners. Experience contributes greatly to their ability to remain calm and in control, as if the myriad details are all in a day’s work. Tougher, said Park, are events that spring up quickly and “become very big very fast.”

Those who would be special events planners take heed: “Either you love it or it scares you,” Morrill said. While commencement offers plenty of room for butterflies in the stomach — both for the planners and the participants — the Special Events staff take it in stride and make it look easy.

Morrill says they have the process down to a science and delegation plays a big role: Both the day of the event and in the months prior, he has designated contacts throughout the University who do their part. He makes sure every aspect of the event is attended to by using an extensive checklist system and a paper trail of files compiled by his predecessor but fine-tuned to his own style.

Morrill credits his experienced commencement day volunteers with making the planning easier and easier with each passing year. While new volunteers always are welcome — there is no such thing as too much help — newcomers can count on having plenty of experienced volunteers show them the ropes. Morrill himself volunteered in various roles — including as a lineup marshal (who, in addition to lining up the graduates in the proper order, also are charged with looking out for alcoholic beverages and beach balls) — before taking over the role of coordinator three years ago. Because there’s little volunteer turnover there’s no need to rehash at length what needs to be done. “I just say, ‘Same post, same time, different date,’” he said, confident in his volunteers’ abilities.

In exchange for their service, volunteers get lunch during the pre-commencement meeting, brunch on the day of the event and a token of appreciation afterward. Morrill said most volunteers say they wouldn’t dream of missing the event, seeing it as their chance to share in the culmination of the very reason the University exists.

Park added, “It means a lot to us to see the graduates segue from the University back into private lives and their careers.”

Dick Howe, an associate dean in the School of Arts and Sciences, agreed. “This is why we are at the University. The ultimate success is that they accept their degrees. It’s my way of embracing their achievement,” he said of his participation, counting some 64,000 graduates — including three of his own daughters — among those he’s rejoiced with over 32 years as a commencement volunteer. Howe, who has been chief roving marshal (head of the floor managers who ensure that those involved in the processions get to the right place at the right time) for 26 commencement ceremonies, said, “Turnover is normally because someone has left the University, not because they’ve grown tired of the pressure.” Sometimes, leaving the University isn’t enough to keep longtime volunteers from coming back to help with the ceremony. At least two former Pitt employees are among the legion of dedicated participants, he said.


Planning commencement is a year-round event that begins as soon as the new graduates scatter to hug their friends and families and embark on their lives beyond the University.

Before the confetti has been swept from the floor and the chairs put away, organizers are debriefing about what worked, what went wrong, where the bottlenecks were, and how the event can be made to run more smoothly the next year.

Once that’s finished, Special Events staffers pack away the radios and clipboards that keep the volunteers in touch and organized. In the weeks that follow the event, they produce a video for the graduates and an album for the chancellor to present to the guest speaker, and the date is booked for the next year’s event.

Selection of the commencement speaker is initiated by the chancellor, Morrill said, but staffs from both the Chancellor’s office and Special Events share hosting duties for the special guest.

Commencement planning takes a breather when other events, such as freshman convocation and honors convocation, need attention. Once those are complete, planning for commencement picks up again in earnest.

Early in the spring semester, commencement information is posted online and an informational mailing goes out. In March, information on the graduates is collected school by school.

Many commencement planning sessions no longer require face-to-face meetings among the organizers, because many are experienced and need only be brought up to date on specific issues for the current year. For instance, Howe will coordinate details with Morrill shortly before the ceremony to discuss any changes and address concerns such as whether there are any participants with special needs who may need assistance from the marshals.


April marks the busy season for The Pitt Book Center’s role in graduation. A big part of the pre-planning is taken care of at Graduation Central — a two-day event coordinated by Special Events, The Book Center and the Alumni Association. Essentially a one-stop shop for graduates, it’s the place where they can pick up their academic regalia, yearbooks and commencement day instructions; buy graduation announcements, diploma frames or class rings, and get information on services such as insurance, alumni association membership or Pitt’s career network.

In early April a tractor-trailer load of 138 cartons of academic regalia was delivered to Alumni Hall in anticipation of this year’s Graduation Central event. “That’s probably the most physical labor,” said Kathleen M. Fennell, The Book Center’s academic regalia expert. It’s Fennell who makes sure everyone gets the right color hood for the school from which he or she is graduating. She also oversees the process as cartons are moved off the truck and stored prior to Graduation Central.

Much has changed from commencements of yore. A recent change is that bachelor’s degree recipients now receive academic hoods, as do doctoral and master’s candidates. Now all bachelor’s and master’s candidates wear black tassels. Doctoral grads wear short gold ones.

Gone are the tape measures for determining mortarboard size. Today’s caps are adjustable. Individual regalia orders for graduates also are a thing of the past (except for custom regalia). Now Fennell keeps spreadsheets of prior sales and has access to a list of how many students have applied for graduation to determine what stock needs to be on hand. Students pay for and collect their regalia at Graduation Central.

“I’m always amazed,” Fennell said, “Each year it gets a little easier, it gets more efficient.”

The Book Center’s own commencement web site gets updated in January — no need for a redo, just tweaking, since much of the information is in place from prior years.

Rosemarie Slezak, director of Pitt’s Book Centers, said planning meetings have been whittled to a minimum because the process is so finely tuned. Three meetings last year turned into one face-to-face plus some emails this year before the pre-commencement luncheon takes place, she said. “We almost have Graduation Central down to a science,” she said.

Staffed by Book Center employees plus volunteers from around the University, the event is fun as well as informative. Event staffers in chartreuse T-shirts emblazoned with “Welcome Almost Alumni” offer congratulations to the smiling students and snippets of practical advice — remember to hang the academic robes for a few days ahead of time to eliminate the wrinkles — as they help students prepare for the big day amid a festive atmosphere of balloons, snacks, music, freebies and door prizes.

The event isn’t helpful just to the students. Usually about half of Pitt’s 6,000-plus graduates attend commencement each year, but Graduation Central attendance helps Morrill get a better count of how many students plan to walk in commencement. Morrill passes on that information to the set-up staff at The Pete who arrange the chairs.

Morrill assessed his commencement planning progress as he calmly surveyed the steady stream of students at this year’s Graduation Central. “We’re right on track,” he said. Mid-April is the time for preparing an abbreviated script in conjunction with the chancellor’s staff, and for looking ahead to the home stretch. Next amid myriad small details are more major milestones on his planning checklist: the annual pre-commencement volunteer luncheon and volunteer training, then the event itself.

On commencement day, “I will be everywhere,” Morrill said. First, he’s on the floor, then he moves to the video production booth for a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings.

Once the commencement procession begins, there is no turning back. “It’s a little bit of relief, but you hope nothing fails,” said Morrill, who gives the “go” sign to start the ceremony.

It can be difficult to watch, he admitted — especially when he sees something go awry. But even if he sees a group of temporarily “lost” students making a U-turn, they’re in the capable hands of the marshals, who get them where they need to be, often without any outsiders realizing the maneuver wasn’t part of the plan.


A major milestone came in 2003 with the return of commencement to the Pitt campus.

Holding commencement in the Petersen Events Center rather than Mellon Arena means all the graduates can process onto the floor. At the Mellon Arena, only the doctoral students, faculty and the platform party could process. “It adds tremendously to the overall impact of the ceremony,” Park said.

Mellon Arena also presented scheduling headaches. “Every year we had to wait for the Penguin playoffs, to get in,” Park recalled, adding that sometimes the transition from skating rink to regal ceremony venue had to be done in a single day with graduates sitting on a floor that had hastily been laid atop the ice. “It was like setting up for halftime at the Super Bowl,” Park said. What’s more, it wasn’t unheard of to have the hockey team waiting in the wings for the University to vacate the venue so they could get back onto the ice.

Now, once The Pete is set up, volunteers can do a walk-through several days ahead of the ceremony. “It’s easier for the volunteers to understand if the room is already set up,” Morrill said.

New traditions have been added since the ceremony was moved to The Pete. The University band plays, custom-made banners for each school are carried during the procession and a special “Hi, Mom” video that features greetings from students is shown while the crowd settles in prior to the start of the event.

Special Events staffers also keep up with trends at other universities. Pitt added a confetti shower in 2004. This year, in commemoration of Pitt’s 220th anniversary, attendees can expect to see some historic videos added to the mix, Morrill said.

Howe commended Chancellor Mark Nordenberg for bringing commencement back to campus, noting that it helps connect the University-wide ceremony with the individual graduation events held by schools and departments. “It’s more meaningful to the graduates and their families,” Howe said.

Still, the transition back to campus was “a logistical nightmare,” he said, given that The Pete and Mellon Arena are so different. “It took several years to sort out the back-of-the-hall support issues,” he said. “Where do you put everyone? How do you get them to where they’re supposed to be without running into other groups in transit at the same time?” Those questions have been worked out and now commencement is a smooth operation, Howe said.


By April 29, there will have been numerous last-minute late nights and early mornings, but everything will be complete so staff can arrive on commencement day fresh and ready to go, Morrill said.

It’s important to have as much as possible completed before the day arrives, Park said. “We take 11 to 12 thousand people who arrive within a very short period of time. That’s what we’re looking at.”

The stressful parts come if people aren’t where they’re expected to be: a speaker is running late or a soloist hasn’t arrived. “You want everyone there an hour before you really need them,” Park said.

The organizers take no chances. “We always wait until everyone is in place,” she said, recalling one year a student announcer didn’t make it to the event. A last-minute volunteer was plucked from the floor as a replacement and all went well in spite of the emergency substitution.

The Book Center’s Fennell and Slezak are among the volunteers who attend commencement to help with last-minute details. In spite of students’ education, regalia can be a puzzlement. Master’s candidates sometimes need a bit of help finding their robes’ sleeve openings or risk ending up with their hands stuck mitten-like in the end of the decorative batwing that hangs down from the sleeve. Hoods can get tangled and twisted or turned around backward. Fennell and Slezak are among those on hand to help, armed with plenty of safety pins to ensure everyone looks his or her best.

Fennell admits she gets choked up watching the ceremony each year because of the way the students’ excitement and pride shows. “They are our happiest customers,” she said.

Among the most visible volunteers are the roving marshals. They must have the ability to communicate effectively, think on their feet and work well under stress, Howe said. Using clipboards with cryptic flow charts that show which marshal is leading which group, where and when, the 12 roving marshals keep the procession flowing. A little figurative handholding is on the list as well. Part of the job is to visit each holding area where participants are waiting prior to the ceremony to let them know that the rovers will take care of them. “We assure them all will be well,” Howe said.

Much is accomplished with a smile and an arm extended to guide the participants in the right direction, but Howe’s main advice to his fellow volunteers is to keep their sense of humor. “A smile goes a long way,” he said.

Even if a group gets misdirected, or a doctoral candidate’s name temporarily is overlooked, quick thinking and graceful subtle guidance make it look to the audience as if nothing’s gone wrong, Howe said.

Noting that he’s been blessed with good commencement coordinators, Howe said mistakes are rare.

“It’s just checks and balances,” he said. “When something gets by one of us, we cover for each other,” he said. And, if something slips by, commencement still goes on beautifully to the uninformed eye.

Howe has his own checklist that includes a last-minute walkthrough of The Pete, checking and counting chairs to ensure there aren’t too many or too few. After the walk-through, there’s a robe check to make sure each marshal has his or her regalia — including beefeater and baton — in order. Watches are synchronized and when the signal is given, the movement begins.

“It’s controlled mayhem, and it all falls into place,” Howe said. “With experience, you can do it.”

Faculty members are lined up. Doctoral candidates are placed in order. The candidates enter the hall, the faculty follow and the platform party completes the procession.

Following the national anthem, while speakers are making their remarks, the roving marshals step out until they’re needed to guide the doctoral candidates one by one to the stage — the most highly choreographed part of the event. Rovers continue following the commencement script until it’s time to escort the platform party off the floor at the end of the event.

“Then we literally get out of the way,” Howe said. All those who were escorted into the hall in orderly fashion leave in a mass of celebration to find their friends and families. Meanwhile, the rovers get out of their robes and off their feet and debrief with a cold drink.

Howe said it’s a time to collapse after the tiring combination of hours on his feet added to the emotion and pressure of the day. “It’s a lot of people to smile at,” he explained.

Once the thank-yous are said and the debriefing done, the Special Events staff are among the last to leave.

To Morrill, the best time comes not at the end of the day but later, “When I get the photos back: watching the excitement on the students.” He commends the photographers from the Center for Instructional Design and Distance Education for their work. “They capture moments we never see,” Morrill said, adding that once he sees the photos, he’s able to assure himself that everyone had a good time.

This year, once the clipboards and radios are put back into storage, and the post-commencement details are wrapped up in the weeks following the event, Morrill said he has one last thing to do: “I’m going to Disney World.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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