Commencement preparations in full swing

May 8, 2014

by Susannah Brooks

Got those sequins ready for mortarboard decorations? How about dinner reservations for a family of 10? With days to go before the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s spring Commencement ceremonies, everyone’s got something to plan.

For the staff and students behind this year’s big move to Camp Randall Stadium, the process has gone on for months. It started even before the plans were announced on Oct. 23.

One of the biggest transitions came with the shift of responsibilities from the Office of the Secretary of the Faculty to the Office of the Chancellor.

Allison Golden has been at the helm of commencement planning since mid-November, wrangling everything from outside vendors and aspects of the chancellor’s speech to emails from concerned parents.

That’s all taken place as every aspect of the ceremony has been scrutinized, rewritten and polished in a way that hasn’t happened for more than two decades – since the ceremonies were last held in Camp Randall Stadium, likely featuring the parents of some of this year’s graduates.

The path hasn’t always been easy. Though there’s a first time for everything, concerns about weather, transportation and the format of the ceremony itself have followed each new announcement.

Golden and her colleagues from across campus have poured themselves into making this event the best it can be: not more complicated simply for the sake of pomp and circumstance, but meaningful and memorable for all who attend.

“Among the emails I’ve received, I got a really heartfelt message from a student who was concerned about the context of the ceremony,” says Golden. “As a first-generation college student, this recognition was really important to him. We had a wonderful back-and-forth exchange, and it came out that he simply wanted a bit of reassurance. I’m a first-generation college student myself, so I could relate to that feeling. His response was so kind.”

Preparing Camp Randall Stadium for Commencement is very different from working at the Kohl Center. The process has involved a significant rethinking of how the stadium could be transformed into a formal yet festive arena for one special day.

Graduation tassel and diploma cover

A new tradition will take hold at UW-Madison as a single ceremony for bachelor’s and master’s degree candidates will move outdoors to Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, May 17.

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“I think it’s really impressive how, in such a short amount of time, such a huge event has come together,” says Anna McCullough, a former student employee of Athletics who is helping to coordinate arrangements. “In Athletics, we’d prepare for an event like this more than a year in advance. It’s very impressive to me how smoothly things are running at this point in time.”

Shane Burgess has overseen much of the site work.

“Anything that touches Camp Randall, Shane has done; his knowledge has been invaluable,” says Golden.

Burgess has worked on issues ranging from staging and the sound system to creating maps and planning for Commencement Day.

The stage must be brought in on a semi trailer; the delivery involves calculating the precise angle of ramps leading toward the field. A special surface is being laid on top of the turf to protect both the playing surface and the formal footwear worn by many graduates.

McCullough, who graduated in December, is familiar with stadium logistics. Working for Athletics, she’s spent several years helping people with mobility concerns enjoy football Saturdays in comfort. This job is a more detailed extension of those responsibilities.

She’s spent the past few months sorting through hundreds of seating requests for Commencement. It’s a deceptively complex process: parsing the needs of people who can climb stairs versus those who require space for a large motorized wheelchair, or figuring out how proud but frail grandparents (of whom there are many) can sit comfortably near the rest of their family.

“When I work on football, there’s not a lot that happens before the actual game; it’s a little more off-the-cuff,” says McCullough. “For this event, we’re preparing them well before they arrive at stadium. Just like football, I like the feeling that someone who couldn’t otherwise attend something at such a large venue will be able to take part.”

Family photos at graduation time

Commencement may be in a new spot, but some traditions will remain while others will begin. Here, a family takes graduation photos in front of Bascom Hall in 2013.

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Since this process is new this year, most requests have involved exchanging multiple confirmation emails and working with families to find the best option for arriving to the stadium, traveling to their seats and enjoying the event in a particular seat.

McCullough has answered hundreds of confirmation emails; now, graduates are getting in touch to pick up packets of tickets. As a recent graduate herself, she’s heard it all.

“People are excited about it,” she says. “Most of the time we don’t hear many of the positive comments, but I hear it from friends who are graduating."

Golden says that she's also received much valuable behind-the-scenes help from the Office of the Registrar, and Registrar Scott Owczarek.

No matter what the ceremony looks like, some things will never change: the singing of “Varsity,” and photos with Abe.

Like Commencement itself, the end of one era brings the beginning of something new and exciting.

“For me, one of the most rewarding parts of the job has been sharing not only information but excitement about this event,” says Golden.

“It’s true that we’ve heard from a number of people who have been apprehensive about some of these changes. As we’ve gotten more information out, however, I think we’ve been able to turn many people’s opinions around. Seeing that joy on May 17 will make it all worthwhile.”

More information about commencement can be found here.