On May 5, nearly 6,000 chairs will be lined on Fiske Quad for Keene State College’s Commencement Ceremony. But despite the grand display, few KSC graduates realize the months’ worth of planning that goes into the culmination of a college education.
Barbara Preston, the senior administrative assistant for Student Affairs who has planned the past four commencements, joked that planning for next year’s commencement will begin the week after this year’s.
“It takes a year and multiple contracts,” she said, adding that despite the work, it’s a ceremony well worth it. “It’s quite impressive, if you’ve never seen it before.”
According to Preston, as of April 25, 1,173 students were eligible to participate in graduation, though she said that number changes daily.
“Not all of them will attend, but they’ll all graduate,” Preston said. “We usually have a very small percentage that don’t attend.”
This year, the largest change in the commencement ceremony is the addition of an evacuation plan called “Storm Ready,” in the case of severe weather. According to Amanda Warman, the director of Campus Safety, 50 crowd managers were trained in the week leading up to commencement to help keep the ceremony as safe as possible, especially in the case of an emergency. “They’ll be additional eyes and ears for our department so they can call an officer,” Warman said.
The evacuation plan, which was contracted to an outside organization to design, was devised after last year’s close call, according to Warman. She said commencement almost had to be cancelled because there was lightning within three miles of the ceremony. “That’s just too close to have this large a group of people,” Warman said.
In addition to extra staffing and special training, this year the Campus Safety office will have the ability to unlock the doors of all of the buildings surrounding the quad with a one-click system from the dispatch office, in the case of an emergency where the crowd needs to be moved indoors quickly.
Warman also said parking is carefully planned out by Campus Safety for the event in order to minimize parking issues with such massive numbers of people.
“Parking is a long process, but I think it’s something we’ve done particularly well,” she said. “We have lots of signage and we have been working on our staffing plan for a while.”
According to Ethan Kipnes, the associate director of Campus Safety, roughly 12,000 people will attend graduation. 20 Campus Safety employees, five detail police, and five additional security detail will be on hand during commencement to help manage the crowds.
“They’ll assist in the various aspects,” Warman said. “You sort of see what the crowd is doing and try to adjust.” Warman said for her department, commencement is a huge undertaking and requires heavy planning all year long. “We start looking right at the beginning of the event,” she said, in order to do “in-flight correction” in attempts to run the event as smoothly as possible. She added that they discuss possible changes for next year’s ceremony in a debriefing immediately following this year’s ceremony, so they can talk about the bugs while it’s still fresh in their minds.
Beginning the Monday before graduation, chairs are set up across the quad, according to Bud Winsor, the assistant director of the physical plant and grounds.
He said 6,400 chairs will be rented and it will take approximately three days to have all of the chairs set up. “We rent them every year,” he said, “and the minute they leave our ceremony, they go to another graduation.”
“Chair Watch 2012,” as Warman referred to it, begins as soon as chairs are placed on the quad to ensure they aren’t tipped over or moved. “Historically, we’ve had signs stolen, chairs rearranged and turned around, families ‘camping out’ overnight,” Warman said. “You name it, we’ve seen it.” Seats set out on the quad require no tickets or admission cost, although they also cannot be reserved.
“Only a bottom reserves a seat,” Preston said. “It really does swell Keene by a massive number of people.”
According to Warman, the event is not ticketed both because KSC has no real venue large enough to host the ceremony indoors and because students have voiced their preference to keeping it on the quad. “The students have been very clear about their desire to keep it outside on the quad,” she said.
Before commencement begins, all graduates receive a card with their name on it. The card is first handed to Vice President of Student Affairs Andy Robinson when the graduate walks on stage so he can announce the graduates’ names. “I need to go over and speak to the graduates when they’re all lined up in the gym,” Robinson said of his commencement day duties. Then he said he participates in the ceremony by reading cards. Robinson added that those students who lose their cards may simply tell him their name as they walk on stage.
In addition, the card is used to identify students in photos taken by an official photographer. The college hires a photographer who will take three different pictures of each graduate as they cross the stage, as well as hundreds of candids. Preston said shortly after graduation, parents and graduates can view their three individual photos and purchase them.
On each graduate’s chair is a 20 ounce bottle of water, free of charge, as has been the case in the past.
“It’ really totally weather related. The graduates can bring nothing with them,” Preston said, explaining that on a hot day, sitting in sea of black for several hours can be dangerous.
“We need to provide them [the water bottles] just in case. We don’t want anyone to get dehydrated. It’s not inexpensive, but we really need to do that. It’s essential.”
Not all graduates open their water bottles, however, and according to Mary Jensen, the campus sustainability officer, leftover bottles are collected for the grounds crew to use all summer long. According to Jensen, roughly 5-20 gallon bins of the unopened water bottles are filled each year to be saved. “I’m not a fan of bottled water anyway,” Jensen said. “It seems even more horrible to throw away bottled water.”
Robinson said Preston attends a conference each year hosted by the North American Association of Commencement Officers. This conference allows commencement-planners from schools across the country to come together and exchange ideas. “It’s invaluable,” Preston said of the conference. “Talking to people who do the same job as you is invaluable.”
Preston said she couldn’t imagine larger schools who have to plan multiple commencements throughout the year and for so many more people, but added they have entire departments of people dedicated to commencement, while she plans in addition to other duties.
Although she is in touch with other schools in New Hampshire, she said the has the most contact with the commencement planner for Plymouth State University because the two ceremonies are the most similar. Robinson gave Preston much praise for her work throughout the year to plan for the event. “It’s intended to be a formal ceremony, it’s a celebration,” Robinson said. “It’s one of those few times in life that people really celebrate a big accomplishment in life, so it’s nice that we do it right.”
Allie Bedell can be contacted at
Graphic by Chelsea Nickerson / Graphics Editor.