Graduating to a top-rate commencement experience

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A. Sue Weisler

Shortly after each member of the Class of 2010 has crossed the stage, organizers of RIT’s commencement activities get to enjoy a breather—but not for very long. Preparations for next year’s celebration get underway well before students return to campus from summer break.

“It really does take a year to do it,” states Sue Provenzano, assistant vice president for academic affairs. “Different things need to happen at different times in order for that weekend to run smoothly for everyone who visits.”

Provenzano has served as the primary coordinator of RIT’s commencement for 15 years. A lot of changes have been implemented during that period, all with the intention of enhancing the annual experience for its participants—including the graduates, their families and the entire campus community.

The addition of Academic Convocation in 1995 may be the most notable change. Previously, each college at RIT held its individual ceremony without some type of 
university-wide commemoration. Convocation has become that ritual.

“It gives the families and the students the idea that they belong to something bigger than their college,” says Provenzano.

Orchestrating the logistics surrounding Convocation, the individual college ceremonies, and every other aspect of commencement weekend requires a network of support personnel that span the university community. Provenzano leads a committee that meets regularly and includes dozens of RIT staff members representing the university’s eight colleges and key campus service providers.

“I think that one of the strengths of having them meet together as a group is that they get a better understanding of what each one does,” she explains, “and how important it is to talk to each other.”

Ensuring the comfort and safety of the commencement participants—including up to 45,000 guests who may visit campus over the two-day celebration—is among the committee’s top priorities. Much of that falls under the supervision of RIT Public Safety. 

According to Chris Denninger, the department’s director, more than 30 Public Safety staff members contribute to the success of commencement by directing traffic, monitoring and lending assistance to campus activities, providing a presence inside campus venues and 
responding to a higher-than-normal volume of call center requests.

Ensuring the timely delivery of personnel and services across RIT’s sprawling campus becomes another concern during commencement. For that reason, the university rents more than 70 golf carts to assist campus service providers. The majority of those vehicles get assigned as “people movers,” which are driven by campus volunteers and serve as a courtesy to guests of the graduates.

“It’s very beneficial to the elderly and disabled to get them from one location to the other,” says Paula Foster, coordinator of special events for Facilities Management Services. 
“I know that not all universities do that, and this is a wonderful service that we provide.”

Foster states it’s “all hands on deck” during commencement for her FMS colleagues with more than 220 staff members looking after some aspect of facility operations. That includes ensuring the campus looks presentable to visitors. Efforts to spruce up the landscaping begin weeks in advance of commencement.

“They rave about the grounds and how beautiful they look,” describes Foster. “That’s a testament to our grounds crew. They work really, really hard and it’s noticed.”

Once inside one of the commencement venues, visitors also notice the level of production that goes into each ceremony. A team of RIT departments—including Educational Technology Center Production Services at the Wallace Center, Tech Crew, and NTID Instructional Services—provides audio-visual support that is bigger than life.

Each ceremony is recorded with five video cameras and supported by a production staff of up to 40 professionals. Every aspect of each ceremony is then projected overhead, providing audience members with a front-row seat.

“It gives them a more personal experience,” explains Steve Wunrow, director of ETC Production Services. “They’re getting right up close. They’re seeing their son or daughter walk across that stage and can feel proud of what their son or daughter has accomplished—seeing their names on screen and any honors they’re receiving.”

Within weeks after commencement, members of the committee gather to discuss their efforts. Undoubtedly there are issues to address, but more often there is praise for a job well done—even from families who take time afterwards to express their appreciation.

“Anytime I get something like that, the first thing I do is send it out to the whole committee because it truly is the team effort that makes that happen. That is really what makes it all worthwhile,” adds Provenzano.