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Commencement Behind the Scenes: A True Team Effort

April 22, 2019
Preparing for Commencement is a lengthy process.

It’s before dawn on a Saturday morning in mid-May — not a time anyone would expect the UC Merced campus to be busy. But it is.

This is Spring Commencement, and there is much work to do.

Parking and transportation staff are placing signage and temporary fencing. In the kitchens, dozens of dining and catering workers are preparing breakfast for thousands of people, including the police officers and transportation employees who will spend the morning guiding traffic, answering questions and maintaining order.

“We want our guests to circulate on and off the campus as efficiently as possible so that they have an excellent experience. We want to send them off with smiles on their faces,” Transportation, Parking and Fleet Services Director Karin Groth said.

Custodians are bustling about, tidying and stocking restrooms for the more than 10,000 people who will visit campus over these two days.

The grass on the Carol Tomlinson-Keasey Quad has had its final cut and water for the week, and the grounds crew members place covers over any area that could cause someone to trip as they clear off leaves and loose grass. Once the sun begins to rise, a team of people fans out to place programs on 5,500 chairs that are zip-tied together in neat rows.

A team in the library steams robes for faculty and administrators to wear. A Facilities crew double-checks that everything is working, safe and in its place. In the Lantern, a full staff plus additional helpers prepare to sell hundreds of cups of coffee and snacks, while a group from Alumni Relations coordinates event volunteers, handing out “event staff” shirts, walkie-talkies and other needed items. Before most people have even had their coffee, volunteers are ready to take tickets and guide family members to seats.

It’s an annual occurrence, but that doesn’t make it easier, especially when you consider the many hundreds of people and thousands of hours that go into every commencement event.

“There are so many people behinds the scenes, I don’t even know how to estimate,” Assistant Director of Protocol and Special Events Shannon Rogina said. “TAPS, the police, grounds, facilities, custodians, IT, all the volunteers, faculty, staff, leadership, the outside vendors — there are too many to name, but every single one of them is important.”

Graduates and their families will have a lovely day, thanks in part to all the work that goes on behind the scenes.

All of this is a far cry from UC Merced’s first commencement, which saw three students graduate in 2006. In 2009, the first full class of 500 graduates experienced Michelle Obama’s first commencement address. More than 1,300 students are expected to graduate this year.

The Commencement Planning Committee, which starts meeting each January, is a diverse team that brings expertise from information technology, catering and dining services, transportation and parking, facilities, external relations, student affairs, skilled trades and public safety. Every aspect of the ceremonies is planned down to the smallest detail, to ensure the weekend goes as flawlessly as possible.

“The work order I file with Facilities Management is 20 pages long,” Rogina said.

Countless Hours of Planning and Preparation

On May 18-19, UC Merced students will receive their degrees on a stage that takes an entire week to build, starting with the vendor that brings the stage pieces early one morning the weekend before.

But even before stage parts arrive — a month before — the grounds team begins to limit the number of events held in the quad and starts preparing the lawn. Facilities Management’s skilled trades team removes fixed furniture, such as benches, to prepare for temporary equipment, and works with vendors on proper placement of stage supports, temporary electrical generators and utility connections. A team of people surveys below-ground utilities to reduce the chance of damage during stage setup.

Fire extinguishers must be placed. Emergency routes have to be planned, examined and walked. The live-streaming equipment that will broadcast the ceremonies online and in the Dr. Lakireddy Auditorium must be set up.

“We want the technology to be a vehicle for an impactful experience,” Videoconferencing and Media Streaming Specialist Edson Gonzales said.

There's still time to volunteer to be part of the 2019 Commencement ceremonies, where you're sure to see a lot of happy faces.

A professional linguist pre-records the accurate pronunciation of graduate names through a name reading software vendor. The recorded graduate name, degree and major is coded on a card to project onto the two 11.5-by-15-foot 6mm LuxMax LED walls at the ceremony.

Electricians check circuits and outlets. Restrooms and drinking fountains are serviced. Doors are repaired, heating and cooling systems are checked, extension cords with cable covers are laid.

Sidewalks are pressure-washed to remove debris and chewing gum. Catering starts receiving crates of about 95,000 pounds of food and production begins for the more than 2,300 people who will be fed at about 50 events over commencement weekend.

“There are so many important details to attend to around campus,” Executive Director of Campus Services Jeff Isham said. “It is the individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes commencement work.”

Every department involved works extra hours — lots of them — but Rodney Trevathan, general services manager in Facilities, singled out two of his team members for special recognition.

“Carlos Estrada and Junior Sanchez are two of the unsung heroes working behind the scenes in Moving and Events,” Trevathan said. “They work 70-80 hours that week to make sure each event has what they need, right when it is needed.”

Everyone involved agrees it’s all worth it for the final result.

“Every time I hear Pomp and Circumstance, it takes me back to my own graduation,” Gonzales said. “You can’t help but feel uplifted and know that something great is about to happen.”

“I love to see the students and feel their joy and all the excitement on campus,” Rogina said.

If you would like to be part of Spring Commencement 2019, volunteers are still needed for such duties as ushering, ticket-taking, visitor information services and more. Join the Commencement Squad by visiting Commencement 2019, or email commencement@ucmerced.edu with questions.