Ever since the first Baylor University graduate received his degree back in 1854, commencement has been one of the highlights of each academic year. Lois Ferguson (BA ’68, MSED ’94), shown in the photo above at a recent commencement, is Baylor’s manager of commencement and facilities planning. She has been coordinating University commencements for the past 17 years, and her skill in overseeing such a complicated task is one of the reasons that her peers at other institutions elected her as president of the North American Association of Commencement Officers awhile back. To get a better idea of what it takes to make a Baylor commencement ceremony run smoothly, we asked Lois this past spring to give us a peek under the hood in this First Person essay.
There is a sense of anticipation in the air –– the arena seats fill quickly while hundreds of empty seats are carefully arranged on the floor of the Ferrell Center, just waiting.
And then the big moment –– the music changes, the students in their black gowns, except for a few in Baylor green, enter from all corners of the building and cheers erupt around the arena. Precise, exciting –– pretty much perfect. But behind the scenes, there are a thousand and one details that have taken a large group of dedicated faculty and staff a whole semester to take care of and to make it all happen.
Commencement occurs three times a year at Baylor University –– in August, December and May. For many years Baylor has gone through the cycle at the end of every academic period, which allows students to participate in a ceremony as they finish their coursework and are certified to have met all degree requirements.
Many schools hold commencement only once a year and don’t take things this far –– grades aren’t due until after the ceremonies and sometimes finals haven’t even been taken yet when the ceremonies are held. That makes those ceremonies seem “not quite real,” at least in the eyes of some of us.
Dates and times of ceremonies at Baylor are a given, but our recent creation of an additional academic unit (the Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences) has required some careful counting to equalize the size of the ceremonies and keep their length within a reasonable time.
Details abound, such as the selection of a retired faculty member to carry the mace, choosing parents to lead the prayer, deciding on special music for every ceremony and the number of chairs needed on the floor and on the stage, determining which Regents will attend (and making sure their robes are available and transportation is set), producing a script to keep the ceremony on track, making sure the graduates are certified, awarding outstanding faculty each May –– well, you get the idea.
And lest we forget, there’s Bear Faire every semester. It’s an event Baylor offers to help graduates finalize the details needed to take part in their commencement ceremony, such as purchasing caps and gowns and even checking the spelling of their names for their diplomas. Bear Faire gets more popular every year, with more than 60 percent of undergrads participating last spring.
If I seem to be painting a picture of commencement as all detail and dreary work, let me say that there is a wonderful side to the process. The best part for me is watching the students walk the stage and receive their actual diplomas. Some folks like to look at the graduates’ shoes and figure out how many will trip down the stairs, while others smirk at the sight of a pair of tennis shoes and hairy legs protruding from the bottom of an un-pressed robe.
I especially love it when the provost asks all undergraduates to stand, and the students all look at each other to see if they are the “graduates” he means and finally begin to rise for the official conferral of degrees.
Of course, there are the occasional students who pull out a pair of “Noze” glasses to greet the President, and lots of hugs onstage. There once was even a tassel spinning atop a hat as its engineering student owner walked the stage.
Before each ceremony begins, the Registrar’s Office orders diplomas. They are verified for accuracy and rolled into tubes with name labels. Pronunciation help is provided to the fabulous faculty member who reads the names of the graduating students during the ceremony.
During their big moment, each student will have two photos made –– one during the diploma presentation with the President, and another posed in front of a green screen that will allow them to later add a campus scene of their choice. In addition, undergraduates who graduate with a 4.0 grade point average will receive an Alpha Chi medallion.
Sometimes, we get requests for special assistance for graduates walking the stage –– those stairs are pesky when you’re on crutches. Occasionally, we have the somber responsibility to help the family of a student who has passed away and has come to commencement to receive the posthumous degree.
There have been many heartwarming moments over the years, such as seeing a gentleman of 80+ years walk the stage after coming back to campus to finally complete his degree, or helping across the stage another older gentleman, who was forced to leave campus 50 years earlier to take an out-of-state job and hadn’t been able to return for his diploma ceremony until then.
I also won’t forget the student with impaired sight who crossed the stage twice, first for her bachelor’s degree and later for her master’s –– and both times with her companion dog at her side. Of course, we also love to watch the proud Baylor students who have become the first in their families to graduate from college.
So, with all the planning and work it takes to hold commencement three times a year at Baylor, why do we do it? All I can say is there really is nothing else on campus that compares to this capstone of all capstone experiences. Commencement is the ultimate completion of the Baylor University experience, and it must be absolutely, unequivocally the best it can be.
All photos courtesy of Baylor Marketing & Communications