Preparing for Commencement: The beginning of the end

Illinois+graduates+place+their+arms+around+each+other+as+they+sing+Hail+to+the+Orange+at+the+end+of+the+campuswide+commencement+ceremony+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+May+17.

Illinois graduates place their arms around each other as they sing “Hail to the Orange” at the end of the campuswide commencement ceremony at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, May 17.

By Lillian Barkley

Before diplomas are conferred, before honored guests voice congratulations and before students file onto the field of Memorial Stadium, faculty across the campus have been working to print out programs and order regalia.

“I think people kind of walk into Memorial Stadium and they don’t understand,” said Laura Wilhelm-Barr, director of special events.

The Commencement section in the Office of the Chancellor has three employees and one student volunteer who organize everything for the May 16 ceremony in Memorial Stadium.

“For a university this large, it’s a pretty complex event,” Wilhelm-Barr said, gesturing to her two-inch binder full of Commencement plans.

She expects 3,000 graduates to participate, which is standard based on the participation of the last few years.

Wilhelm-Barr has coordinated six Commencements and was in charge of moving the ceremony to Memorial Stadium two years ago when the State Farm Center was under construction.

“The decision was made to do one single ceremony and move it to Saturday morning,” she said. “It would be the kickoff, hallmark event of the whole Commencement weekend.”

Starting from scratch was difficult because the ceremony had been done inside for 50 years, but there were some advantages, she said.

In the past, Commencement was composed of two ceremonies, one in the morning and one in the evening, on Sunday.

“It had been difficult in the past to get a Commencement speaker to basically stay all day and do the speech twice,” she said.

The move to Memorial Stadium also meant an outdoor ceremony and new weather considerations.

“Outdoors is great as long as the weather’s great,” Wilhelm-Barr said.

The department orders ponchos for students and has to decide to cancel the ceremony in the event of inclement weather.

This year’s New Student Convocation, which was also organized by Wilhelm-Barr, was canceled due to heavy rain and lightning. She said this was upsetting, but served as a good learning experience.

The ceremony on the football field also requires extra setup, including covering the field before adding tents, the stage and seating, Wilhelm-Barr said. She added that the entire process takes one week.

“It’s a great experience for students to be on the field and have their parents and guests behind them,” she said.

In the weeks leading up to Commencement, after more than a year of planning, Wilhelm-Barr’s department is busy making final communication, compiling scripts and arranging stage directions for the big day.

“We look to a lot of divisions all over campus to help us,” she said. “We just try to bring it all together.”

The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, the State Farm Center staff and the department of Public Affairs all play vital roles in arranging the event.

Wilhelm-Barr also works with each college to plan unit convocations.

“Basically every venue on this campus starting at noon on Saturday is being used for a ceremony,” said Barbara Hall, who is coordinating the department of communication Convocation. “Anything of any size is used.”

Each college hosts their own convocations in addition to the campuswide ceremony. Ceremonies are divided based on department size and are assigned a venue by the special events department within the Office of the Chancellor, Hall said.

There is one major difference between Commencement and Convocation: Each students’ name is called.

“For most students, that’s what they want,” Hall said.

Hall said she has been coordinating Convocation for her department since it was part of the school of humanities, and she encounters the same issues every year.

“The big thing on students’ minds is, ‘Did I reserve a cap and gown?’ and ‘Where are my tickets?’” she said. “They don’t think about what will actually happen that day.”

Jean Drasgow, who is coordinating the ACES Convocation for the first time, agreed.

“I’m really surprised at the handful of people who are mad at us when they didn’t follow the instructions,” she said about families needing tickets.

The ACES ceremonies are held in Huff Hall and the Colwell Playhouse at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts. Drasgow organizes both.

She compared the seating arrangements in Huff Hall to a matrix because the seating has to take into account how many graduates will come from each department.

“You have to make decisions before May 1 if you’re having a giant party May 17,” Drasgow said.

There is added difficulty because students are frequently on and off of the expected degree list, which is what Drasgow uses to plan the seating.

“If we waited a month and had our ceremonies a month later, it might be easier in some regards,” she said with a laugh.

Hall said the stress and planning is worth it when she sees students walk, especially those who she knows have struggled for their degree.

“For a lot of students, it can be the last best memory,” Hall said.

For Wilhelm-Barr, the pressure of a successful graduation is constant.

“You want that last moment for students to be a great experience,” she said. “You want it to be something that they thought, “Wow, that was fantastic, I’m so glad I came to the University of Illinois.’”

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