Behind the Scenes

WPI’s Commencement Is a Team Effort
May 14, 2014

• By all accounts, WPI’s Commencement ceremony is a grand celebration. With years of hard work symbolized in every degree bestowed, marking the completion of a student’s time at WPI is something the university takes seriously. But pulling off a party for close to 6,000 people is no small feat.

The behind-the-scenes action leading up to this year’s May 17 Commencement is significant. Approximately 150 employees from departments across the university play a role so everything goes off without a hitch. In addition to employees who work on Commencement day, even more have contributed countless hours to ensure that even the tiniest detail, like making sure there’s water at the podium, is covered.

Although WPI hosts many large-scale events throughout each year, employees feel the significance of Commencement and do everything possible to make the occasion special for students.

“It’s the most important and the grandest event,” says Bill Battelle, events director, who already has a file going for Commencement 2015. “It is something people will remember for generations to come. Commencement makes memories for so many different people for so many different reasons.”

Employees from facilities, dining services, events, and the Academic Technology Center work from to-do lists and spreadsheets that go on for pages. Even with years of experience among them all, pulling together the details is challenging, but exciting. “We prep as much as possible with all the logistical and mechanical moving parts – the physical set up, the sound and audio, and the food and beverage,” says Battelle.

The massive preparation includes setting up 6,000 chairs on the Quad. “We drop a line so each row is perfectly straight,” says Terry Pellerin, associate director of buildings and events. “It takes 12 to 15 people to do it. They start at 7 in the morning and finish up at about 3 that afternoon.”

From the most visible detail, like the flowers, shrubs, and mulch that beautify the stage, to the most invisible, like fully stocked and clean bathrooms, the commencement team anticipates everything. Recycling bins for waiting graduates to leave bottles or cans magically disappear after the ceremony so guests see just a beautiful campus. And then there’s the unpredictable weather that necessitates extensive planning for alternatives everyone hopes won’t be necessary.

Dining services churn out a seemingly endless amount of goodies.

Joe Kraskouskas, director of dining services, who works from a four-page-long spreadsheet, says Commencement is the culmination of a busy week for dining services that includes Baccalaureate, senior week events, trustees events and receptions, commencement breakfasts and coffee stops, and the Commencement reception.

Employees start prepping in the wee hours of Commencement morning, says Kraskouskas, to make sure everyone has what’s needed. And while he says Alumni Weekend is actually a little more complex than Commencement, the graduation event is momentous. “It’s not just our department,” he says. “Everyone strives to make this the most important day for the students and their families. It’s four important years for the students, and we want them to be happy on their way out.”

Families who can’t make it to graduation can still watch it live, thanks to video-streaming provided by the audio/visual services department. David Taranto, manager of A/V Systems, says a video feed is essential both on campus, for those who might watch the ceremony from one of many inside stations, and off campus for family and friends who can’t make it to Worcester and still want to see loved ones graduate in real time.

The camera, cables, video switchers, and all the staff needed to test, do sound checks, and finally record, takes coordination. Taranto especially enjoys seeing the AV work study students graduate. “We get to hear their names, see them, and then off they go,” he says, noting how it’s special to meet the families of the students, too.

Because of the sheer amount of equipment and people needed, WPI does contract out some of the sound work to a vendor, says Steve Hemming, manager of campus media services, but about a dozen WPI employees still need to work on that part of Commencement. “If you don’t have decent sound, it affects everything,” he says. “This takes a total team effort.”

The employees say their Commencement duties are their own last send-off to each of the students. “If people didn’t recognize my job or anyone else’s jobs for Commencement,” says Battelle, “it means we did it right.”