Behind the scenes of Syracuse University commencement

Behind the scenes of SU commencement

The May 13 event in the Carrier Dome requires more than a year of planning and will draw more than 15,000 graduates, family members and friends to campus.
Published: May 10, 2018
Syracuse University and State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry students attend the annual Commencement ceremony on May 10, 2015. This year's commencement will take place on Sunday starting at 9:30 a.m.

Alex Snow flipped through a nearly 2-inch thick stack of papers in a small office on the first floor of Women’s Building in early April. The spreadsheets covered scores of timelines, logistics and to-do-list items — more than year’s worth of work for Snow and three colleagues — necessary to pull off one of Syracuse University’s biggest and proudest annual events.

This was the official SU Commencement master plan.

“When you are talking about when does the planning process start for commencement, it starts 13-14 months before commencement begins,” Snow said.

Oftentimes many graduates don’t recognize a laborious procedure that takes place to stage the Carrier Dome event. But a team of event coordinators like Snow, who works at the university’s Office of Special Events, began working on this year’s May 13 commencement in Spring 2017 — and already has begun laying out a blueprint for the next year’s graduating class.

The core team orchestrating commencement planning is composed of merely four SU staff: Snow; Jean Brooks, director of operations and special events for the chancellor’s house; Ellen King, executive director of special events; and Lynsey Riffle, event coordinator.

As a campuswide event that brings between 15,000 and 18,000 people to the Hill, Commencement involves multiple campus entities such as the Food Services for catering and the Parking and Transit Service for navigating on campus.


King said cooperation and maintaining good relationships with those entities on campus are important for successful graduation ceremony.

“When you are coordinating with every department on campus and they’ve all got their own priorities, you want to get ahead of it,” Snow said. “Because when the spring hits for every department, in their world, they are busy with their own things.”

Physical Plant is one of the organizations the teams works with. On the stage for commencement and each school and college convocation during the graduation weekend, there are hundreds of plants, usually geranium, placed for decoration.

Brooks said Physical Plant workers want to know the time frame leading up to commencement so that they can start thinking about when to do the planting for geranium to be in full blossom for the weekend.

“They are literally planting the seeds way before placing orders,” Brooks said.

Selecting a commencement speaker also takes months. Brooks said class marshals submit their choices for a commencement speaker before it’s open up to the public. Once the team narrows down nominations by taking out “unrealistic” requests such as Beyoncé or former President Barack Obama, Brooks said King passes the list of nominations with the Office of Alumni Engagement for evaluation.

Afterward, the provost’s office takes a look at it and then gets submitted to the chancellor’s office.

This upcoming commencement speaker is Kathrine Switzer, an author and a SU alumna who was the first woman to run Boston Marathon in 1967.

During commencement, King said she is at one of box suites at the Carrier Dome communicating with staff on the ground about what’s going on on the ground via a headset. Even though the ceremony itself is a culmination of the team’s months-long planning, King said she doesn’t get to enjoy or relax during the event as her team’s priority is to ensure the ceremony keeps running as scheduled.

The team is equipped with contingency plans to prepare for unforeseeable circumstances like what if a class marshal doesn’t show up.

At the same time Brooks said she and others find coordinating events like commencement rewarding. She added that commencements wouldn’t take place without support from various people on campus, including faculty members who volunteer to help graduates and family members on Sunday morning that also tend to be on Mother’s Day.

“The best events are the ones what we always say in front of the curtain it looks seamless and easy — and no one has any idea of all the moving parts that are happening behind the curtain,” Brooks said. “So when people say it doesn’t look that hard to do, they have no idea.”