Special Events and Volunteers Flawlessly Execute Commencement Ceremonies

On Friday, Feb. 22, as Chancellor Patrick Gallagher recognized faculty and student excellence the University’s annual Honors Convocation, Ashley Eckard, special events manager in the Office of Special Events, was already sending out the first commencement announcements to about 8,000 graduate and undergraduate students.

Those emails include a form students use to RSVP to the ceremony, as well as to include other details like their major, schools and any special accommodations needed. For many students, those emails may be the first time they start thinking about the logistics of actually graduating from Pitt.

From the perspective of the special events office, it’s another step in a planning process that begins, for the following year, mere hours after the confetti has dropped and the students have sung “Sweet Caroline.”

Critical volunteers

The Office of Special Events executes most of the events hosted by the Offices of the Chancellor and the Provost, including commencement ceremonies. This year, they coordinated the University’s graduate commencement ceremony on Thursday, April 25, and the undergraduate ceremony on Sunday, April 28.

“It takes a whole year,” said Jason Morrill, associate director of special events. “We’ve already had some discussions [about next year],” he said, less than one week after the April ceremonies. “This week we’re looking at what went well and what we could do better.”

Morrill coordinated the undergraduate commencement ceremony. He noted that the office has a regular timeline they adhere to. In the coming months, he and the special events team will begin looking at volunteers for next year and start reaching out to those people.

Sharon Malazich, assistant director of special events, who coordinated the graduate commencement that was held Thursday evening, emphasized how important volunteers are to the event.

“I could do all the planning in the world, but without the volunteers being there, it would never happen,” she said. “I had a minimum of 70 volunteers. We would not be able to do either ceremony if we didn’t have people who stepped up every year and participated and who come back year after year after year. It wouldn’t happen.”

During the week leading up to commencement, the special events office trained 150 volunteers. “We give out every single thing they need to know,” said Morrill.

Overseeing a successful event

On the day of each ceremony, the staff of the office of special events serve as managers of the areas at which volunteers are executing, which enables Malazich and Morrill to focus on coordinating the overall events. “Everybody that we work with knows what they need to do, and are just fantastic,” said Morrill. “I don’t worry about the shuttles and the parking” because his colleagues are well-versed and have such details covered.

Another critical component to running the commencement events is knowing where all of the volunteers and other special events staff are — what they’re doing, what they need to do and where they need to be.

“You see us walking around with radios. Up above is our director, Graham Park,” he said, alluding to Park’s position in a control booth directing the overall movements of the main floor and calling cues for the speakers. “She calls all the shots. She’s in our ears, because she has the bird’s eye view. She keeps us flowing with the movements on stage and everyone is connected. That’s why it’s so flawlessly executed.”

Volunteer Mary Mollo had a radio in the Petersen Events Center’s practice gym. “I was in charge of the faculty line-up and making sure that they get to where they need to be,” said Mollo, a department administrator in the School of Education who has been a volunteer for 16 years.

One such faculty member lining up in the practice gym was Chris Bonneau, professor of political science and president of the University Senate.

As president, Bonneau opened both the graduate and undergraduate commencement ceremonies, experiences that he called “a lot of fun.” He said both are special in their own different ways, but noted one aspect they share in common: “The immense joy and pride in the faces of the graduates as they crossed the state. It was pretty awesome.”

“A successful event is when you see people happy,” said Morrill. “It’s the biggest, proudest day of their college careers. That’s why we strive to make it an exciting and memorable experience for everyone.”

  • Ashley Eckard (right), manager of special events in the Office of Special Events, with her mother Donna Liska, a Pitt alum who has volunteered for the event for three years. (Don Henderson/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Chris Bonneau, professor of Political Science and president of the faculty senate, acknowledged that some faculty might not like the robes, hoods and other accoutrements of commencement, but he enjoys it. “One of the reasons I wanted to become an academic is because I could play dress up a few times a year,” he joked. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Mary Mollo (left) with colleague Denise Morrin, also a department administrator in the School of Education. Morrin has volunteered for several departmental commencement ceremonies, but this year was her first at the University’s undergraduate ceremony. She said that she hopes to be part of it again next year. “I really enjoy witnessing the excitement of the students as they wind up their studies and prepare to graduate. You can see the friendships they have made during their time here at Pitt.” (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)