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What’s in a Commencement Ceremony?

6,000 feet of duct tape, 10,000 hats, 11,496 pastries

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Watch this video on YouTube

Watch the setup, celebration, and breakdown of the 2009 Boston University Commencement. Timelapse footage, provided by IS&T Technical Operations, was recorded in the press box on Nickerson Field every 4 seconds for 10 consecutive days. The 2010 Commencement ceremony will be shown online live in its entirety beginning at 1 p.m. on Sunday, May 16. Photo by BU Photography

What goes into planning Commencement?

A lot. Forty gallons of red paint are used to paint signs and staging; 6,000 feet of duct tape are used behind the scenes; 10,000 hats are handed out to shield guests from the sun, and 11,496 French pastries are served.

Finally (and initially), less than 24 hours after the caps have been tossed in the air,  planning begins for a Commencement that is 364 days away.

“Every office is involved in Commencement,” says Michael Ciarlante (COM’79), the associate director of Events and Conferences, and someone who has helped plan more than 25 Commencements. “The entire University comes together to have this experience for the graduates. There is no do-over.”

In the week leading up to the big event, it is Ciarlante who ensures that the last-minute details are taken care of, things like seating arrangements for the honorary degree recipients and the Metcalf winners.

Ciarlante also writes much of the official Commencement ceremonial script, such as the remarks to the class of 1970, who will be honored at this year’s event. What about the president’s address? “I take the first pass at that,” Ciarlante says.

On the day of Commencement, Ciarlante can be found at 4 a.m. drinking coffee and checking e-mail. He makes sure there are extra robes (yes, sometimes honorary degree recipients or professors forget them), that diplomas are where they should be, and that the Metcalf medals are ready to go. He also checks in with each school and college to make sure their ceremonies are getting off to a good start.

“If we’re doing our job right, people won’t see the stuff that goes wrong,” he says.

And things do go wrong. When Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (Hon.’05) was the Commencement speaker five years ago, Ciarlante and his team worked closely with the Secret Service. At one point, a curious neighbor in Babcock Towers knocked over a flowerpot leaning on the balcony. It fell several stories and crashed on the pavement — sounding just like a gunshot, Ciarlante recalls. “We went into immediate lockdown. I just had to sit there and have a cup of coffee,” he says. “It was such a strange feeling knowing we were supposed to be really busy, but there was literally nothing we could do.”

The week following Commencement, Ciarlante and his team meet with the sound and video producers, vendors, and representatives from schools and colleges to talk about what worked and what didn’t. They make a list of what not to do next year.

The most crucial aspect of Commencement planning, he says, is teamwork. The effort involves more than 500 staff volunteers on Commencement day. Ciarlante says the Dining Services staff alone spends more than 18,000 man-hours planning and making food.

“The team takes great pride that we’re giving graduates and their families their final experience of BU,” he says. “We do the best job we can.”

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu. Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @amlaskow.

2 Comments

2 Comments on What’s in a Commencement Ceremony?

  • Anonymous on 05.10.2010 at 6:24 am

    Getting involved

    Is there an organization of some sort that undergrads interested in volunteering to help plan commencement can join? This is something I would love to be involved in.

  • Anonymous on 05.11.2010 at 5:19 pm

    Nice article! I love behind the scenes stuff.

    This guy sounds a little high strung, but I suppose he has to be. Best of luck to everyone planning commencement.

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