The Graduation Game
In the game of life, few moments can compare with graduating from college.
Recognizing that, Angelo State University painstakingly prepares for each commencement ceremony that officially marks graduation to ensure the final event provides all the pomp and pageantry befitting one of the signature occasions in the lives of the participants.
Starting months in advance, staff from several university offices join together behind the scenes in an exhaustive effort to plan and stage the ceremonies for the benefit of those who are trading in their student status for that of ASU alumni.
Prep work for graduation begins near the start of every spring and fall semester in the ASU Registrar’s Office with much of the early effort centering on the commencement program that includes information on history and traditions as well as all the major “players.”
“As soon as we start getting graduation applications in, we start putting students’ names in the program,” said Chad Harris, registration assistant. “There are certain pages that are static and don’t change, but there is also information that changes all the time, like the speaker’s details and anything that is dated. The spring program is always bigger than the fall because we have all the awards winners at the end of the academic year.”
“I remember how it was for my family to see me go across the stage when I graduated, and I want all our graduates to have that same kind of experience.”
Seven thousand programs are printed by the ASU Print Shop each spring and 5,000 for fall ceremonies. Other information in the program includes the commencement speaker, academic readers, marshals and the carriers of the University Mace and college gonfalons. The speaker is set up through the President’s Office, the readers are Drs. Jeffrey Schonberg and Mark Hama of the English faculty, and the University Mace is carried by the longest-tenured ASU faculty member. Since each ASU graduation comprises two commencement ceremonies, Dr. Ken Stewart and Dr. Tom Bankston share the honor of carrying the mace. The marshals, who act basically as ushers, and the gonfaloniers are chosen by their respective colleges.
To help coordinate all those personnel and the many other arrangements that go into the commencement ceremonies, Registrar’s Office coordinator Poly Riddle has compiled a large three-ring binder that contains her checklists for every aspect of the planning.
“It’s like my bible,” Riddle said. “It’s got everything from the marshals, plant rentals, color guard and music to security, the slide show, Alpha Chi list, announcers and speakers. Also, regalia deadlines, ROTC graduates, setting up the Mace and the gonfalons, and students graduating with honors.”
“Poly also coordinates our photographer,” said Cindy Weeaks, director of registrar services, “as well as our floral arrangements, the ROTC color guard and the music. We coordinate with the Art and Music Department to find us a singer, and with Dr. (Daniel) McCloud for the band to come play. Poly also sets up the sign language signer and contacts the speaker to get the speech to put in the script.”
While Registrar’s Office personnel have the entire semester to complete their preparations, Special Events Office staff are not so lucky. They only get a week to transform the Junell Center from a sports arena into a ceremonial gala showcase. Much of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of Events Manager Nathan Lopez and his crew, who are charged with arranging the retractable bleachers, covering the floor with protective mats, centering and building the stage, and arranging 500–600 chairs.
Event staff positions the podium on the stage before spring commencement.
“It takes a village,” Lopez said. “I have all my guys here at the Junell Center. We bring in the guys from the University Center. We’ll use some Ticket Office people to help with the doors. So, it’s about 20 people total.”
“We also pre-set the dining space that they use for the platform party,” said Greg Pecina, executive director of business services. “We cover the floor in the auxiliary court and we pre-set tables, mirrors and stanchions for the graduates to use and line up in. After lunch on that Thursday, other staff come in to set up things like the plants and boxes of commencement programs.”
Once set-up is complete, Registrar’s Office staff handle rehearsal. Riddle sends email reminders to faculty, department heads, Mace bearers, gonfaloniers and marshals about the Friday afternoon practice session, so they can familiarize themselves with the set up, see where the graduates from the different colleges will be seated and go over their duties for each of the ceremonies.
At the same time that staff are working on all the logistics for commencement, prospective graduates are also scrambling to make sure all their preparations are complete so they can walk the stage on graduation day. Yolanda Fay Elias, the 2012 Presidential Award winner as the top graduate in her class, had a hectic final semester as she readied to receive her two bachelor’s degrees in the spring. She had to pass a major field test for her mathematics degree and undergo a portfolio review for her English degree, both in April, then submit and defend her honors thesis in early May, and then take four finals the week leading up to graduation.
“When I turned in my final portfolio for English, it was the last departmental requirement I had,” Elias said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually going to graduate in less than a month!’ It was kind of scary, but exciting at the same time.”
“I applied for graduation,” she added, “about three weeks after the semester started and really watched everything after that. It’s like that horror story you hear when someone says, ‘I was just a month away from graduation when I got an email from the dean’s office saying I’m missing a class requirement.’ I constantly double-checked everything because I did not want to wake up to that on graduation day.”
Yolanda Fay Elias, 2012 Presidential Award winner and head of her class, graduates with dual bachelor’s degrees in English and mathematics.
Elias’ final days at ASU were not completely without drama, though, as her dual-degree plan threw the Registrar’s Office a bit of a curve.
“Even back when I started this program, I knew graduation was going to be a pain,” Elias said. “I called the Registrar’s Office at least three or four times, and I called the dean’s office I don’t know how many times, but enough that I’m sure they were tired of me. And sure enough, when I first checked the graduation list, I was only on it for one degree and not the other. But we got it worked out.”
Helping resolve those types of sticky situations has become old hat for Registrar’s Office staff. The list of graduates now being available online and via email has lessened their occurrence, but there are still instances when terrified students show up in the office after not seeing their names on the list.
“They usually come straight to us,” Weeaks said, “but we have to refer them to the dean’s office of their college. We’ve had them really panic and come running in here, and we’ve even had them show up at the graduation ceremony and not be on the list. At that point, we let them walk the stage, but tell them to check with their dean’s office on Monday morning to see what happened.”
“We’ve also had instances of students’ names not being in the program because they were added at the last minute,” she continued. “Chad (Harris) had one student in particular who was just in tears.”
“Her stepdad was dying of cancer,” Harris said, “and she wanted his last name to be on the end of hers in the program. But, it wasn’t on her paperwork that way, and we had already gone to press with the program. So I went and made one especially for her with her stepdad’s name on there, so she could take it to him on her graduation day. She was in tears twice that day—the first time when his name wasn’t in there, and then the second time when it was. So that was a great way to turn a negative into a positive.”
With the program completed and the stage, chairs and decorations all in place, the Junell Center doors open at 8 a.m. on graduation Saturday, two hours in advance of the first commencement ceremony for graduates of the College of Education and College of Health and Human Services.
“People are already waiting to get in when we open the doors,” Pecina said. “The families and friends want the choice seating. The graduates don’t typically arrive until about an hour before the ceremony, and they are funneled through to the auxiliary court, checked off on a list and given their name cards for the academic readers.”
Greg Pecina, executive director of business services, ensures the stage is ready.
While that seems pretty straightforward, students sometimes make the process a bit more difficult. In those instances, the Registrar’s Office staff is once again called on to save the day.
“We’ll have students who show up at the wrong ceremony,” Riddle said, “and they’ll start to leave crying. But, we’ll stop them and make sure we stick them somewhere so they can go through the ceremony.”
Weeaks added, “We’ll also get students who come running up trying to get on the arena floor because they are late. We just have to find some place to sit them, and then hand them their name card for the reader. We can line the students up and corral them in the auxiliary gym, but once they hit the Junell Center floor, it’s pretty much out of our hands.”
With the start of the early commencement ceremony, staffers switch gears to be alert to any potential problems and be ready for damage control.
“I’m watching out to make sure we don’t lose sound, especially when they are reading the names,” Lopez said. “I’m looking out for air horns, because we don’t allow those. I’m making sure nobody falls or gets hurt because sometimes we get people standing on chairs or hanging over balconies to take pictures or wave at their graduates. I also look out for spilled drinks or messes in the bathroom. I’m always doing something.”
At the end of the early ceremony, the arena crew rushes to re-set the arena floor for the afternoon ceremony that is a repeat performance for graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences and College of Business.
“In between, we feed approximately 20 people in the VIP Room who are either in the platform party or one of their guests,” Pecina said. “Then, we go through the seating areas and make sure they are all clean. We sweep and pick up all the trash and old programs left behind after the first ceremony. We try to make sure the facility is exactly the same for the second ceremony as it was for the first.”
One of the many students who appreciate those efforts is Alonzo Rojas, who graduated with his accounting and finance bachelor’s degree during the afternoon ceremony in May. Born to immigrant parents in Friona in the Texas panhandle, he is a first-generation student who always planned on graduating, just not necessarily from ASU.
“Even though ASU is also in West Texas, it was a big culture change,” Rojas said. “After my first semester, I was submitting applications to go to a school closer to home. Luckily, the Multicultural Center introduced me to some other programs here at ASU, like the Association of Mexican-American Students, that took me in and made me feel more comfortable.”
Rojas’ parents came down for his graduation and even arrived a bit early so they could also attend the ASU Alumni Association’s Ring Ceremony to see Rojas receive his official ASU ring.
First-generation student Alonzo Rojas received his bachelor’s of accounting and finance with his family present.
“They are so happy,” Rojas said. “I saw my dad tear up. You can just tell how much it means to them to see me graduate. It’s something my whole family can share.”
“And it’s not just my family,” he added. “The whole community of Friona was also very supportive. That really helped me establish myself, so this is an accomplishment to share with everyone who supported me. It’s like they say, ‘Regardless of what happens, no one can ever take your education away.’ I’ve earned it, and it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
Presidential Award-winner Elias also graduated during that afternoon ceremony wearing a cap she decorated with a rose and her favorite anonymous quote, “A Dreamer Lives for Eternity.”
“It was kind of surreal,” Elias said. “You get in this bubble, ‘I’m going to school, I’ve got to finish school, I’ve got to finish school.’ Then it’s like, ‘Oh gosh, I’m actually coming to the end of it.’ It’s kind of crazy.”
“Luckily, I did not have to make a speech,” she added. “I was more nervous about this one than high school graduation. It’s a bigger deal, and it’s so final. Now I have to figure out what I want to do with life.”
The work, however, does not end at the close of commencement. ASU President Dr. Joseph C. Rallo invites students to join him for photos, an effort coordinated by Harris of the Registrar’s Office. Besides often shooting the pictures, Harris also enjoys the opportunity to get some feedback from the president.
Poly Riddle consults with a graduating senior.
“It’s nice to be able to pick Dr. Rallo’s brain,” Harris said. “I’ll ask him how he thinks things went and if there is something we can do better. Lately, he has been very complimentary, and his list of improvements has gotten much shorter. That makes me think we are doing things the way we are supposed to.”
The stage, chairs and various decorations also have to be removed, but not right away as ASU also hosts several high school graduations for San Angelo and area schools. The local schools require additional chairs and all the schools like to have extra seating on the arena floor for their bands. Once those ceremonies are completed, the arena crew can finally put everything away.
“Tear-down doesn’t take nearly as long as setting it all up,” Lopez said. “It only takes about a day or two.”
Despite all the work and stress that goes along with conducting commencement ceremonies twice every year, the staff in the various offices involved understand the importance of what they are doing and the role they play in making graduation day as meaningful as possible for the students.
“It’s actually a fun day,” Harris said. “We stress about it because we want it to go perfectly. I remember how it was for my family to see me go across the stage when I graduated, and I want all our graduates to have that same kind of experience. That’s why we work so hard on the front end, so the kids can have that kind of experience on the back end.”
“Since I graduated from ASU in 2008,” Lopez added, “I know what the students are feeling when they walk across the stage. It’s probably their biggest moment at ASU, and I want it to be the best experience possible. I really enjoy graduation. It’s a lot of work, but it’s well worth it in the end.”