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Hooder’s ballet takes careful planning for flawless execution

Some of Lanny Hilgar’s finest work goes—she fervently hopes—unnoticed. Not that she isn’t proud of the intricate planning that takes center stage at UMass Worcester's Commencement each year. Of course she is.

Spotlight - Hooder's balletBut what she really wants is for the PhD students and their guests to focus on those few moments when the graduates arrive, like clockwork, at an ‘x’ of tape on the stage, at the same moment that their dissertation advisors are ready to drape their shoulders with the ceremonial hood—not the logistics of how they made that simultaneous connection. Forty-eight PhD students. Thirty-two hooders. Dozens of delicately choreographed moments in the sun. Call it the ‘hooder’s ballet.’

It wasn’t always like this. Until relatively recently, two faculty members did the hooding, the dean handed over the diploma and everyone applauded. “In years past, however, we would occasionally, and happily, accommodate a member of the faculty who wanted to take part in hooding a son or daughter who was graduating,” recalled Hilgar, who has been coordinating Commencement at UMass Worcester since 1987. This required the proud parent to be seated in a convenient place among the platform party, the more than 100 faculty, administrators, honorees and speakers who sit onstage at the ceremony, each with a particular role in the day’s events. “But since there were rarely more than one or two each year, it was simple to arrange,” she says.

Then Hilgar laughs. “But then one year . . .  ”

One year, a Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences student asked that her dissertation advisor, or mentor, present her with the ceremonial hood—a practice common at many schools. “Of course we said ‘yes,’ and of course,” Hilgar laughed again, “once other students heard about this, they all wanted their mentors to hood them, too. Who could say no to that? These students had worked so hard, and for so many years, and in such close collaboration with their advisors, we saw it exactly as they did: as an honor, and as utterly appropriate.” With its first PhD graduates, the Graduate School of Nursing adopted this hooding tradition as well.

However appropriate the honor might be, it clearly requires some careful planning. The hooding itself takes a few practice runs for a neophyte to get the hang of it. Given the fact that students don’t pick their mentors in alphabetical order, not all mentors are able to attend Commencement, and some mentors have other duties on the platform, the logistics can be daunting. GSBS Dean Tony Carruthers, PhD, for example, can only be in one place at a time, but in 2007, he left his accustomed place at the diploma table, moved to the other side of the stage, and proudly hooded his students David Blodgett and Jeffrey Leitch.

Each faculty hooder needs to be seated in a particular seat in a particular row on the platform, so that when the students march with grace and majesty onto the stage, soon-to-be Dr. Megha Ghildiyal, for example, is hooded by her mentor, Phillip Zamore, and not hooded by Robert Matthews, who will be lining up to hood his students Sagar Kathuria and Bedri Can Kayatekin—but not student Christian Grove, who will be waiting to be hooded by Marian Walhout, but who may be sitting on the platform next to Professor Zamore, and on and on.

Because the hooders are embedded in the middle rows of the platform party, because space on the stage is tight, and because so many of the faculty on the platform have other roles to play – reading student names, handling diplomas, formally conferring degrees—a hooder who isn’t paying attention can lead a significant number of colleagues astray.

This is where Hilgar’s organizational skills are tested. (Her college degree was in chemistry; she has, according to her colleagues, advanced degrees in composure, diplomacy. graciousness and order.) “I tell them two things,” she said of the hooders. “First, that there is a rationale for where they sit, when they stand, why they move from place to place, and that they have to trust that; and second, that for each one of them, it really is very easy—if they manage to get robed, line up, march in and find the chair with a Commencement program bearing their name, the hard part is over long before they rise to pick up a hood.”

When the process works, which it always does, what the audience sees is a row of gowned faculty rise in unison and move–with grace and majesty–toward an approaching row of students, who each pause on an almost-invisible spot of tape onstage, to be draped with the hood, get a hug or a handshake, smile for a photo and cross the platform. A careful observer might notice that some hooders act for two, or even three students—others, just one—and that once the hood has been placed, the faculty member moves behind the row of incoming hooders on their way to do their duty. It is perhaps reminiscent of what audience members of a certain age may remember seeing happen when a cuckoo clock struck the hour: the metronomic rhythm, the intricacy of the interaction and the return to order.

The ultimate test of the process? “In all of the years we’ve been doing this,” said Hilgar, “we’ve never had a hooder end up without a place to sit or a student to hood, and we’ve never had a student leave without being hooded and hugged. And that’s really the best measure of success. “

She smiled. “That, and having no one think how crazy we must be to try and do this every year!”