At Commencement, it’s all hands on deck

Each year, Penn’s Commencement honors thousands of students and their families at Franklin Field in one of the University’s proudest and most elaborate celebrations.

Penn’s 256th Commencement will be held on Monday, May 14. Like ceremonies before, it will almost assuredly proceed with nary a hitch, thanks to pristine planning, behind-the-scenes preparation, and hundreds of hours put in by dedicated members of the University community.

The Office of the President handles the logistics of the ceremony, including the setup of Franklin Field, the stage, the lineup areas, the procession, rentals, vendors, and the plan for dangerous weather.

Mark Bendas, director of special events in the President’s Office, says planning typically begins early in the fall semester.

“Our planning really starts in September and goes right through Commencement. It’s about eight months out of the year,” he says.

“As soon as we’re finished planning Convocation, we start with Commencement,” adds Julia K. Ledwell, special events manager in the President’s Office. 

The Office of the University Secretary is responsible for the planning of the Commencement ceremony, the Commencement program, and related publications. It also provides support services for the Commencement speaker, all honorary degree recipients, and for guests with disabilities.

Kimberly Wing, administrative coordinator for ceremonies and diplomas in the Secretary’s Office, collaborates with coordinators at each of Penn’s 12 schools to ensure accuracy in the Commencement Program, as well as the printing and distribution of more than 8,000 diplomas each year.

On Commencement day, staffers from the Secretary’s Office also serve as some of the Commencement marshals, the 150 or so faculty and staff from across Penn who partner with the President’s Office or Secretary’s Office to help with the ceremony.

“We are definitely all-hands-on-deck for the entire operation,” says Lynne Sniffen, executive assistant in the Secretary’s Office.

The Secretary’s Office also manages the selection of honorary degree recipients and the choice of Commencement speaker, working with the University Council, the Speaker Advisory Group (comprised of undergraduate, graduate, and professional student representatives), and Trustee Honorary Degree committees. “The honorary degree process is a multi-year, ongoing endeavor,” says Sniffen. “Planning is already underway for 2013.”

Ledwell, of the President’s Office, estimates that nearly 200 people are involved in the preparations and setup for Commencement, and more than 200 volunteer on the day of the ceremony, not including day-off staffing, such as security and housekeeping.

As soon as we’re finished planning Convocation, we start with Commencement.”

She says the physical setup and breakdown of Commencement is a two-week process. Workers arrive on the weekend before the ceremony to begin setting up the stage, video cameras, screens, and sound equipment.

Bendas says the most challenging aspect of Commencement is the one thing they can’t control—the weather. The ceremony is only moved indoors in the case of dangerous weather, such as lightning.

The President’s Office partners with Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES) on the production and setup at Franklin Field. Bendas and Ledwell coordinate with Kristyne Kealey, urban park manager at FRES, who oversees the labor. 

Kealey, who has been working on Commencement for 20 years, says FRES supplies the electricians, plumbers, cleanup crews, and other necessary personnel. 

Maureen S. Rush, vice president for the Division of Public Safety (DPS), says DPS also works closely with the Secretary’s Office on the Commencement plan.

DPS typically leads the Commencement procession with patrol officers on bicycles, and provides security along the route, as well as inside Franklin Field. Rush says “the whole division” is involved in the ceremony.

Commencement is one of the biggest days for students and their families, Sniffen says. “It is a beautiful, colorful day, bagpipes, the whole thing,” she says. “It’s very cool.”