Making Commencement Great

One family recently attended a miserable graduation ceremony, and offers ideas on how colleges can do better.

June 17, 2013

Our family recently gathered for a relative's college commencement, and we all agreed afterward that it was the worst graduation ceremony we'd ever seen. After four years of tuition and hard work, it was a serious letdown to attend an endless program focused on fund-raising from graduates and families who were there for another reason. It certainly left us all wondering about the competence and judgment of its organizers, and spurred us into thinking about the purpose of a graduation ceremony.  (Spoiler: we think it’s about celebrating a milestone with students and their families and friends.)

Instead of focusing on the depressing, disorganized and cliché-ridden 2.5-hour self-congratulatory event, we decided to envision the graduation ceremony we would hold if we ran an institution of higher learning -- one that might have left us pumped up, happy to have been associated with the place, and potentially receptive to the appeal for donations that arrived within four hours of the ceremony’s end. Effective fund-raising is about making friends and connections, and a fundamental rule of making friends is to think about the other in the relationship, at least part of the time. Alienating people is never a great way to raise money.

So now, with this year’s ceremonies safely behind us, but before too much planning has started for next year’s, here are our seven easy steps for a great graduation ceremony.

1. Focus on the audience. Let us first stipulate that it wasn’t the college’s fault that it was raining. We did wonder, given that it had been wet for days and the venue was a grass lawn, if the college might have considered a bit of mud-abatement, given that many of the guests were dressed-up elderly ladies. Leaving aside the vicissitudes of big events held outdoors, we didn’t object to the open seating plan, and we didn’t mind showing up hours early to get seats that had a line of sight to the ceremony, as we were advised to do. After all, it’s a day of celebration and our family had gathered for it, so we were all together and visiting.

In our re-imagined event, we would keep the open seating except -- to cover those moments when visiting down the aisle gets hard to maintain in the surrounding din -- we’d display a slide show throughout the open seating period, rotating pictures and names and maybe short quotes from each of the graduates in turn. The seating for our event opened at 7:30 a.m. for a scheduled 10 a.m. ceremony. While that seemed a bit long to us, if that’s your standard, even at five seconds per graduate, you’d have time to show everyone in the graduating class several times over.

Showing all the graduates would give families and friends something to watch and would personalize the ceremony that small bit more. (We understand that large state universities with thousands of graduates couldn’t feasibly do that and must instead muster all the majesty and dignity they can in mass ceremonies. We also know that many large places hold department and college events in addition to the huge main event. We’re focused on the smaller-scale shindigs although much of this could be applied to the college ceremonies at large universities and parts could be applied even to the largest ceremonies.)

2. Personalize every chance you get. A processional signals “event” and can be an emotional starting place for a narrative arc if well staged. Given that we were all on a flat lawn, once everyone stood up to honor the entering graduates, their faces were blocked from the vision of most. If the venue doesn’t provide universal good lines of sight and, as seems pretty standard, you can predict that the audience is going to stand up to honor the graduates as they enter, it seems that there are two requirements for setting and maintaining the tone of a great event: assure some visuals for those who cannot see anything and reinforce the moment with music.

While the graduates are entering, our imagined graduation switches from the earlier multi-media show to a live stream showing the face of each entering graduate. The music should have a strong beat that encapsulates the beginning of a journey, something that either people will recognize or that has a catchy tune. Avoid a brass ensemble playing the same music for the 23rd time in a row.

3. Provide some unexpected touches. Rather than open with the usual rote speech from the presiding official, try having the main graduation speaker welcome the crowd, foreshadow the speech by saying "Welcome, graduates! I’m (name) and I’m looking forward to telling you in a bit about a lesson I learned as a student that helped me get to where I was picked to speak at your graduation. First, here’s your president who’s going to tell our audience about you as a class."

Now the president, instead of holding forth to let you know what’s on his or her mind these days (who really cares at this event?) or demonstrating erudition (ditto), talks a bit about the class: what its demographics were upon entering, maybe a poignant line or two from an admissions essay from someone in the class, some class achievements (prestigious scholarships, hardships overcome, number who studied abroad, next steps such as the range of jobs or grad school choices, cool achievements, quirky things that characterize the group, etc.) and something about what went on in the world during their educational tenure. This would be no more than five minutes or so. It wouldn’t include a fund-raising pitch.

4. Start setting a theme for alumni-hood. This next bit takes some advance work, but if you have a class in the hundreds, it should be doable: as part of the graduation run-up collecting pictures for the opening mosaic of the class, ask students to submit a picture and a few sentences about someone who influenced their education. This can be someone who inspired them to go to college (yours, in preference, in at least one or two cases), a faculty member who was particularly transformative, or something else their creativity provides. Pick a range and the most memorable, and get those students to record a voice over. Put together a video montage with the voiceovers — again aiming for 5 minutes. Play that now. (Even large universities can do this. Cornell University, for instance, has a program with a similar aim that might seed other ideas.)

At the debacle we attended, instead of anything at all about the graduates, we were treated to narcissistic recollections from a range of dignitaries who didn't mean much to anyone, each containing yet another request for donations. Between the empty aphorisms and pleas for money in every set of remarks, we were left wondering to whom the speeches were addressed (it certainly wasn't the graduates, and it certainly wasn't us.) If our programs had contained "cliché bingo" cards, at least it might have been entertaining. By this point, most people were reading on their phones or Kindles, occasionally consulting the program to see how much more they’d have to endure before anything relevant to the audience happened. Some of those around us occupied themselves during this stretch of the program trying to brush the mud off their shoes, which had by now had quite some time to dry.

5. Since it’s not about you, keep it short. Prime the speaker with two key things: 1) the address should be SHORT — 12 minutes, max — and 2) it’s about the audience, not about him or herself. If possible, ask the speaker to outline lessons that have served his or her career and that were rooted in undergrad years or shortly thereafter. (We know, priming really important people can be hard. Many, though, will be grateful if you provide some scaffolding for their talk because constructing just the right speech for a graduation can be daunting.) Provide the speaker with three or four interesting facts about the class or its members.

Our speaker told us that she’d been told to speak about herself. While she thought it absurd, she said modestly, she was surely compliant. She did leave out her shoe size and what she prefers for breakfast, though.

6. Graduate them. It may seem gratuitous to mention this, but especially if you’ve made them show up in advance for a practice (you did, right, including their cues for standing up and sitting down and the routine for walking from the seats to the stage and back again?), and collected phonetic pronunciations of their names, try to get them right. This was underlined at the recent ceremony we attended, when every single graduate we knew (a fair number) suffered a name mangling, including some of the pretty easy ones. It’s a bad sign when there’s laughter at name announcements and it grows as you progress through the alphabet.

7. Finish with a final touch of priming. As each graduate leaves the stage, diploma in hand, give each a flower or some other appropriate token. Instead of a recessional, after the diploma-dispensing is complete, ask the class to stand, locate someone in the audience who helped them achieve this milestone, and say that, as a first step out into the real world, start by giving back: ask each to go to the person, escort that person out of the venue and bestow the small item as a thank you and to start the habit of acknowledging others and giving back. Wish them well and send them out on their new lives.

In the end, we propose that a relevant graduation ceremony reviews the journey the graduates have been on, and anticipates the journey on which they now commence. A coherent narrative, frequent personalization, and respect for the graduates and guests can turn an otherwise formulaic (or worse) event into a memorable celebration. Round it out with sensible logistics, fit it into a reasonable time frame, and voilà, a good graduation. You might even make some friends who later want to donate to your institution.


C.K Gunsalus is a columnist for Inside Higher Ed. She was joined in this piece by family members Kearney T. W. Gunsalus, Brian P. Teague, Jovanna Stanley, Anna Shea W. Gunsalus and Michael W. Walker.

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