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Taking a behind-the-scenes look at Commencement

It takes an army-sized team to put on Commencement, including hundreds of dedicated volunteers. The major players describe their roles. Emory Photo/Video.

It takes an army-sized team to put on Commencement. Spearheaded by the Office of University Events, Commencement is the biggest annual event the office coordinates. "We take it very seriously and recognize that Commencement Day is sometimes the only time that extended family members have ever stepped foot on campus," says Michael Kloss, director.  "We want their experience, just like the student experience, to be the best that Emory can offer."  

Kloss' office produces the ceremonial aspects of the central ceremony, recruits and trains the 200-plus volunteers, works with the operations team to ensure that all setup and infrastructure is in place, and provides support to the schools as they plan their diploma ceremonies.  "We run the Commencement website and produce school-specific help guides for students and their families," he says.  

Here is what it takes from some major players:

Emory Police Department: Commencement means managing a huge influx of approximately 15,000 people and their cars, according to Emory Police Chief Craig Watson. "It requires all of our available staff to work during the Baccalaureate and Commencement ceremonies, especially to handle the traffic and pedestrian flow into, across, and back out of the campus," he says.  

"It’s also an opportunity for us to establish relationships with students as future alumni and their guests," Watson says. "At last year’s Commencement ceremony I was approached by a gentleman [on campus] who said 'I can’t believe you still work here.'  He met me when he was a student 30 years ago and he was now attending his daughter’s graduation."

Transportation and Parking: Commencement planning has been rolling since January as the department works closely with the Office of Special Events to coordinate maps, way-finding signage, and more.  

Commencement day is dual-gear work: "Not only are we welcoming, parking and transporting several thousand visitors into and out of some very tight spaces, but we still welcome, park and transport University and Healthcare staff to their jobs as if it’s a regular day," says department communications specialist Alice P. Sloan. 

"We expand our fleet to plus or minus 62 buses from our usual 35," hiring and training additional drivers to cover Commencement service as well as the other routes, she adds. "Clifton Corridor and approach routes traffic is much more demanding from about 6 a.m. until 9 a.m."

Campus Services: Work begins in January to reserve the chairs —  about 14,000 for the Quad, 6,000 for McDonough Field and the remainder for individual school ceremonies and receptions, says Karen Salisbury, chief of staff.

Commencement requires about 3,000 work hours by Campus Services staff  and that doesn't include Emory Police and Transportation and Parking. "All departments within Campus Services are involved – from paint to HVAC to controls to lock shop, as well as all the zones in prep for Commencement," Salisbury says.  "We order all the supplies,  porta johns, chairs, tents."

Flower beds are prepped in advance to be in bloom during Commencement.  With landscaping, "we have all summer to recover" the turf areas of the Quad and McDonough Field, she notes.

The work surrounding Commencement continues "through mid-June till the last bill is paid. We look at Commencement as the time for us to shine," Salisbury says.

Emory Dining: Emory Catering is the main driver behind Emory Dining’s involvement in Commencement, says Rebecca Cutts Denton, marketing manager for Emory Dining.

Emory Catering provides custom menus for each event depending on the client’s needs. Months in advance, linens, flowers and food are ordered, Denton says.  "We work very hard to make sure each event meets the sustainability requirements, which includes using compostable materials."

Emory Catering also works closely with partners Sysco and The Coca-Cola Company.  Menu cards, item identification cards, drink cards and dessert menus are produced in-house.

Emory Catering will produce over 15,000 desserts over the course of the Commencement season, May 9-13. Denton says there are anywhere from 10-30 events per day during this time, ranging in size from two to 2,000 people.

The high demand during Commencement means bringing in employees from Morehouse College, Oxford College, Georgia Gwinnett College and Georgia Tech.  Even with the extra support, "we still have to hire temps for most events," she says.

Office of Access, Disability Services and Resources: The goal of this office is the best accessibility for the speakers, platform parties, Corpus Cordis Aureum, students and their families and friends. "Ideally," says Jessalyn Smiley, assistant director, "people will fill out the online form on the Commencement site ahead of time saying 'I'm coming and I need this help.' However, that doesn't always happen and we'll seat them and help them anyway."

Smiley's office handles accommodations for the both the main ceremony and the diploma ceremonies, including requests for seating, hearing and visual impairments help, access to reserved seating and more. Smiley says usually 50 to 60 people a year need the special reserved seating. Each is allowed to have one person accompany them, for a total of 100 to 150 people to be accommodated. The number of requests for assistance from the office goes up and down from year to year, Smiley says.  Providing on-the-ground access, "we're handling the biggest age range possible, from mothers with strollers to Grandma, giving them a clear path to their seat, figuring out where to put the stroller…

"Our entire office works the day of Commencement and we have volunteers who indicate they want to work with accessibility. Every year we all attend the volunteer training," she says.  

Residence Life & Housing: "We offer housing for families and guests during Commencement weekend in two of our first-year residence halls," says Mary Romestant, director of operations.  "Since some students remain in their rooms until the move-out deadline, the building staff, summer conference staff and Campus Services might only have a few hours to clean, do any major repairs that are needed, and prepare it for incoming guests to move-in."   

Four days after Commencement, Romestant's group is at it again as Emory hosts the summer games for Special Olympics Georgia.  More than 1,800 athletes, their families and coaches will live in the residence halls for a weekend of athletic events and competitions.

Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response (CEPAR): CEPAR helps with severe weather monitoring. "As is routine for us, we will be vigilant and on standby to coordinate with our local partner agencies, any response required in the unlikely event of an emergency," says Sam Shartar, CEPAR senior administrator.

Shartar also invites everyone to follow CEPAR on Twitter @Emory_CEPAR "to receive actionable information in the event of an emergency on the Emory campuses."

Wrapping it up

"It generally takes until Friday to feel like all loose ends are tied up," says Kloss, with the Office of University Events. "There is equipment to return, robes to store, and debriefings to hold. By Friday, though, we’ve generally closed down Commencement operations. On Commencement day, we begin wrapping up major operations once the College is finished and the chair cleanup begins."

"We leave each year's Commencement with a list of things that we would do differently next year, based on observations and the wonderful feedback from our volunteers," Kloss concludes.

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