Behind the scenes: what it takes to get ready for Commencement

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The main tent being erected
(restart video)

June 2, 2010

When the first graduate’s foot hits the stage on Sunday afternoon, her family and friends will be filled with pride at what she has achieved. What her family won’t know about are the countless hours that have been spent making this day a perfect celebration of her once-in-a-lifetime moment. Nor should they. That’s the job of the folks who plan Commencement, a signature annual event at UMass Worcester, as it is at every institution of higher education.

From the facilities crews who literally do the heavy lifting to the catering staff who prepare brunch for more than 2,000 guests, pride at being part of a milestone for every graduate is the feeling of the day. “This is a moment each year when UMass Worcester really shines. While the decision to move the event to campus was intended to allow graduates to include more family and friends in their big day, it had the added benefit of involving more members of the UMass Worcester community in making this day not only possible, but special,” said Bill Tsaknopoulos, who as director of auxiliary services, coordinates all the physical planning of the event—everything from ordering the tents to figuring out where everyone will park.

Adding it up

  • 50,000 sq. ft.of tent space erected
  • 5,000 bottles of water chilled
  • 4,200 chairs unfolded
  • 2,000 flowers planted
  • 250 lbs of potatoes cooked

A thousand small details go into making sure the spotlight is on the graduates and the speakers. In the week before Commencement, the tents go up and rehearsals are planned for all the individuals involved, from members of the graduating class to members of the chorus. Ushers are trained. An alternate route is planned for the procession in case of rain. A sign language interpreter is hired to translate for hearing impaired guests and special seating is reserved for those who have physical challenges that make it difficult to traverse the aisles. Seats are counted and recounted. This year, the construction of the Albert Sherman Center brought additional challenges to a campus where space is a premium.

A behind-the-scenes look reveals that as soon as one Commencement is wrapped up in June, planning for the next one begins with a post-mortem about what worked and what didn’t. Committees are formed, duties are assigned and excitement begins to grow once again. “I have been a part of planning Commencement for more than 20 years, and despite the gray hairs I’ve gotten worrying, I never fail to get excited when the procession begins,” said Lanny Hilgar, special events coordinator. Her role includes responsibilities large and small—screening bands for the Commencement eve party, hunting down the perfect podium, writing the master script and proofreading the program.

On Sunday at noon, all the individuals involved in planning this tightly choreographed event will stand back and watch with pride as the march begins and graduates enter the tent amid applause from their family and friends. And they will sleep like babies Sunday night.