For families, the Elon University commencement ceremony begins promptly at 9:15 a.m. For graduates, the call time for lineup is 7:45 a.m. For some Physical Plant and Aramark employees, chairs start getting wiped down and coffee starts brewing at 4:30 a.m. But for others, commencement and all the preparation that goes into it, began right after Spring Convocation. 

Planning ahead

While the main bulk of planning begins in April, graduation is often on the forefront of many Elon employee minds. 

“Commencement is always on the mind of I’d say about 20 people that work across the campus because they are always looking at commencement for ways we can make it better — make it safer and more comfortable for the guests,” said Patti Gibbons, associate director of Cultural and Special Programs.

Gibbons works to bring together the resources on campus necessary to put on graduation, including dining, Physical Plant, academics, security, cultural and special programs and teaching and learning technologies. All of these people are employees of the university who add commencement planning to their current jobs. 

“We are very lucky and very fortunate to have staff that are so invested in this that they will do their regular 8-5 job but then they’ll do whatever it takes to get these events ready and to pull them off and make them extraordinarily special for families,” Gibbons said. 

Soon after commencement, a meeting is held where the ceremony is debriefed and people are invited to send thoughts and suggestions about ways to improve.

After that, it’s not until after spring break that preparation really kicks into high gear. The main logistics meeting for commencement this year was April 12, and after that, volunteers are recruited and assignments are handed out. 

But for Physical Plant, the job starts even earlier.

“As soon as spring starts coming, we start doing things to get ready,” said Robert Buchholz, associate vice president for facilities management and director of Physical Plant.

While students are gone over spring break, Physical Plant workers begin inspecting flag poles and touching them up, replacing damaged flags, planting fresh flowers, freshening up pine straw and cleaning the pond.

And the week before graduation is when all the main set up gets done.

The Tuesday before graduation is when the stage went up and the grass got its final cut. Wednesday, the chairs began getting placed — all 11,500 of them. After finishing Thursday afternoon,  other chairs were being placed in Alumni Gym in case of rain. Haggard Avenue was blocked off Friday night, and the final chairs were set up in the road. And then on Saturday — the day of commencement — the day kicks off at 4:30 a.m. with employees wiping down and drying off the chairs before the ceremony begins.

For student Physical Plant employees such as junior Colleen Cody, getting to be a part of the preparation provides them with a different perspective, and a greater appreciation for the process.

“I’m behind the scenes to see how much work is put into setting up for graduation and then honestly I feel like I will appreciate it more next year when I graduate, seeing everybody else work behind the scenes,” Cody said. “I guess I just have a different outlook on what goes down.”

And while all of this occurs, catering is hurrying to get their preparation for the week's events done as well.

“Our catering department kind of gears up after Spring Break and it’s kind of nonstop from Spring Break until graduation,” said Laura Thompson, resident district manager for Aramark.

With the large number of end-of-the-year events such as department luncheons and celebrations, the catering department — which has a cooking team of five chefs and four pastry chefs — is busy. 

Senior week kicks off with the senior picnic and senior gala the Wednesday before graduation, both of which require food preparation in the days beforehand, with food orders and shipments coming in the Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the previous week. 

Lemonade starts getting made that same Wednesday, the bulk of the food gets prepared Thursday, Friday is focused on receptions for the different schools and commencement morning kicks off at 4:30 a.m. with the brewing of 175 gallons of coffee until the continental breakfast begins at 7:30 a.m.

But there are a lot of other departments who also chip in to make things happen. Cultural and Special Programs and Teaching and Learning Technologies helps set up the sound system, speakers and microphones the morning of and Campus Police is involved to ensure the ceremony is safe.

“It takes a village to kind of pull off graduation,” Thompson said.

Securing diplomas

While the majority of the physical setup kicks off in the spring, the registrar’s office is thinking about commencement the moment seniors arrive on campus in the fall. 

All seniors attend a graduation appointment in the fall to outline their last year, ensure they’re on track to graduate and get any exceptions to the curriculum made. And in the spring, the registrar’s office goes back to double check each student’s degree audit and ensure they’ve met all the requirements.

Diplomas are initially ordered based off of Winter Term, but last minute changes to majors, minors and GPA causes a final rush for reordering diplomas after final grades are submitted the Wednesday morning before graduation.

These diplomas are printed on Thursday in Virginia, and then driven back to campus. And then at 4:30 a.m. on Commencement morning, the diplomas are replaced and put in order so everything is updated for when the seniors walk across the stage.

Putting together the program for graduation also has to be done after final grades come in.

“It’s a stressful time for us to make sure that everything is accurate in the program,” University Registrar Rodney Parks said. “We identify students who are in absentia, students who are walking, students who may be commissioned and may have a commissioning ceremony so that we can call them by their ‘first lieutenant’ in the brochure as well as other honors and awards that the students will get.” 

Since Elon hands out the personalized diploma to each student on graduation day — and not just a blank sheet of paper — making sure the right one makes it to the right student is no small feat.

“The biggest challenge is getting everyone cleared,” Parks said. “There’s exceptions made to the curriculum, looking for creative ways to make sure they’ve met the number of hours, make sure the GPA’s correct, getting all the grades in. So that Wednesday is really our biggest challenge, our pressure point because at that point, we’re out of time.”

The morning of graduation, students are lined up alphabetically in Alumni Gym and roll is taken to determine who is present and who isn’t, so the team from the registrar’s office can go into the stacks of diplomas and remove those who won’t be in attendance. 

“It takes a good while to get all of them set up on the stage in a way that aligns with how you will walk so that all of that has to be accurate to if a student gets out of order,” Parks said.

But if students show up late, it’s a last-minute rush to figure out where they belong and ensure that their diploma makes it back into the stack.

While problems such as these can be solved with careful planning and organization, there are other problems that can be a little harder to control.

“Weather,” Buchholz said. “We haven’t had rain on graduation in a long time, but we’ve had rain leading up to it. And so it’s very hard to get everything set if it’s pouring down rain.” 

Defining success

Despite all of the difficulties that can arise during the planning and preparation process, pulling off the event can be rewarding.

“When the students walk off and they have that diploma, they feel a sense of closure, of accomplishment,” Parks said. “They’re not waiting 12 weeks after graduation to receive it in the mail, it’s important for that day.” 

For catering, making sure that the parents, families and faculty don’t notice the chaos behind the scenes is a big relief.

“When we’ve hit our deadlines, everything’s going off and we walk away feeling really good that day,” Thompson said. “There’s always going to be a curveball thrown at us and it’s how we react to that curveball. And for me it’s, we react to the curveball and the customer never saw it. So that’s successful. “

And for those in Physical Plant, getting to line the walkways and watch the students mingle with faculty and staff can be a touching moment.

“We’re holding people back so that you all can walk out and walk through the faculty,” Buchholz said. “And seeing the faces of everybody, a lot of people know different people and everything. They don’t know all of them but they’ve met quite a few and befriended in different places. You’ve got four years invested in it, and we’ve got four years invested in you.” 

A change of pace

Next year though, there will be a shift in the way graduation is held. Instead of just one large ceremony with all majors that lasts nearly four hours, it will be broken up into three different parts: one ceremony for everyone with the different speakers on Scott Plaza, and then two separate ceremonies in Schar Center. 

This change was made partly because the size of the graduating class, and also because with the hot temperatures, students and families were often out of their chairs once their names were called. 

“Last year was very hot and in the ceremony, hardly anyone was in the chairs,” Buchholz said. “Most of the students had got up and were under the trees or gone. Most of the parents and everybody had gone.”

But regardless of where commencement is held, how many ceremonies there are, what the catering looks like and how many chairs need to be set up, the people working behind the scenes just want the day to be special.

“That makes it really meaningful when you know that you’ve made an impact and an impression on a guest or a student who’s about to go off to the rest of their life and do great things,” Gibbons said. “To give them that kind of send off is a really wonderful opportunity.”