A Commencement Like No Other

By Danica Fisher ’05, May 27, 2021
How 270 faculty, staff and students gave seniors a memorable sendoff with two hybrid commencement ceremonies.

This year, the members of the Ithaca College Commencement Committee knew they would have a tough job, planning for a commencement when they weren’t sure what form it could take. As New York State public health guidelines continued to evolve over the course of the spring, they ultimately decided to hold two identical in-person ceremonies for students, with the option for them to attend virtually and a component that allowed parents to participate remotely. This hybrid commencement was made possible by the hard work of about 270 faculty, staff and students. 

“We knew something had to be planned and that a purely virtual event was not ideal,” said Dave Prunty, executive director of auxiliary services and co-chair of the Commencement Committee. “To try and do something that allowed the students to have an in-person experience was goal number one.” 

facilities lays down stickers

Facilities staff help to lay down stickers for graduation ceremonies in Glazer Arena.

Moving from the traditional commencement site of Butterflied Stadium to Glazer Arena in the Athletics and Events (A&E) Center provided the best solution for all the technical requirements to host a hybrid commencement, in which many large screens and a strong internet connection were needed, as well as a secure location to check people in.  

The Commencement Committee was made up of a group of volunteer faculty and staff members led by four co-chairs: Prunty; MaryAnn Taylor, executive assistant to the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs; Doreen Hettich-Atkins, executive director of student affairs and campus life; and Vikki Levine, registrar. The Commencement Committee was tasked with figuring out how to host an in-person and virtual commencement, and what elements to include in the celebrations. 

“I feel like every day from January to the point when we decided on the two ceremonies, we planned a completely different ceremony, and it took a ton of conversation with health and safety,” said Levine. “I wanted to give our students who have faced so much adversity their completed degrees and the closure they need to celebrate.”  

A Tale of Two Operations

Steve TenEyck, professor and associate chair of the Department of Theatre Arts, was tasked with helping to design the physical layout of the commencement ceremony in the A&E Center, since it was the first time the ceremony had been held in that space. TenEyck said they had to go through many iterations of the design in response to changing guidelines from the state. 

“We tried to design something we could easily pivot depending on which way the guidelines swung,” said TenEyck. “There’s been a lot of creativity around how to really make it special for people who were in the space physically, but also people who couldn’t be there, and not just the graduates, but the graduates and their families. That’s been at the core and that’s never been lost in the planning.” 

Facilities staff set up Glazer Arena and helped put down around 350 stickers to help with physical distancing and directing traffic of the graduates to the stage. 

people in Park

Faculty, staff and students help out with graduation in Park. 

Chrissy Guest, associate professor in the Roy H. Park School of Communications, was the broadcast producer for graduation and worked from Park Hall with other faculty, staff and students to livestream the event, while the graduates celebrated in Glazer. This meant controlling sound, camera feeds, YouTube live, integrating the comments from social media and making sure that students and families could participate virtually, as well as feeding in the surprise commencement speakers to those watching both in Glazer and at home.  

Guest said that all these elements were brought to graduation to help the students feel like their family, alumni and special guests were involved in their special event. 

“I started to think about ways to have parents involved, and how could we incorporate them,” said Guest. “How could we get students excited about the commencement even though they’re sitting 6 feet apart, their families aren’t there, and neither are faculty or staff. How can we have a really cool, immersive experience for the audience members who can’t be there in person, but feel connected, that was the biggest thing.” 

To have this immersive experience, Guest utilized a Zoom pinning technique. At last year’s completely virtual commencement, Guest used this approach, which allowed them to bring each graduate to the screen live. This year, students worked on pinning, but it wasn’t just to celebrate graduates participating remotely. The eight pinners worked hard so that each graduate in Glazer could see their family on big screens as they walked across the stage. They choreographed who would pin to which monitor, as there were over 900 people in the Zoom rooms for each of the two ceremonies. 

“I don't know any other graduation that brought individual parents to the screen,” said Guest. “If they had their camera on at home and we could find them, and I think we were amazingly fast in doing so, then they were on the big screens. It was quick typing, pinning and praying.” 

students operating camera

Noah Gramitt '21 gained hands-on experience during the commencement ceremonies.

There were many students involved in making the hybrid graduation work. Some helped with planning and others with the day-of events including Zoom pinners, camera operators, the floor manager and technical director. 

John Condon ’22, a television-radio major, was the floor manager for the graduation ceremonies. As part of his role, Condon assisted the speakers and signaled students when to walk across the stage for their moment in the spotlight. Additionally, he gave information from the broadcast director in the control room in Park to the camera crew on the floor in the A & E Center.  

“The most meaningful thing about commencement has been learning new skills for television,” said Condon. “Since I started working on this, I have been able to practice all different aspects of production, like being an assistant director and assembling equipment. The whole experience has been very fun. It's a wonderful environment when the crew can laugh and work together at the same time.” 

“The most meaningful thing about commencement has been learning new skills for television."

John Condon ’22, floor manager

Students were also involved with the planning of graduation, some through their studies in the applied corporate event management course taught by Prunty. Elizabeth Smith ’22, majoring in communication management and design, was one of these students. 

“The class would give Dave Prunty feedback on the committee's ideas, come up with our own ideas/solutions to various challenges, and tell him what feedback we were hearing from our peers,” said Smith. “Our class served as a focus group for the planning committee, giving them a student's perspective on their ideas, as well as helping them develop new ones.” 

Alie Barrett ’22, another communication management and design major, was in Prunty’s class and in Guest’s television production and direction course. Barrett was a pinner during the ceremonies, bringing the graduates and their families together virtually. 

“To be able to actually learn not just by being taught about events but by being brought through the process of an event that's happening, that’s been the most meaningful part,” said Barrett. 

A Campus Comes Together

There’s no doubt that the hardest part was planning for something for which regulations kept changing, but the Commencement Committee felt like everyone stepped up to the challenge. 

“The faculty and staff have been really resourceful,” said TenEyck. “The skill, talent, dedication and creativity of those people who are actually doing the really hard work of pulling things together; I’ve been amazed at how talented my colleagues are. There’s a sense of we’re in this together.” 

There were so many collaborations that came come out of graduation that I hope move forward. I think that that really shows what this institution is about— these innovate collaborative teams of people that get together and make it happen for our students.

Chrissy Guest, associate professor in the Roy H. Park School of Communications.

Chrissy Guest

Chrissy Guest works behind the scenes in Park during the graduation ceremonies.

Levine echoed the sentiment. 

“I’m surprised and thankful for all the expertise we have on campus and everyone’s willingness to work together and be able to change at the drop of a hat,” said Levine. “The absolute wealth of knowledge that we have on our campus and how willing our colleagues are to share their intellectual property to make events happen and provide the best we can.” 

Guest was impressed at the level of collaboration across campus, with students, faculty and staff all working together. 

“It was amazing. There were so many collaborations that came come out of graduation that I hope move forward,” said Guest. “I think that that really shows what this institution is about— these innovate collaborative teams of people that get together and make it happen for our students.” 

Coming Soon

Soon you'll be able to watch the Commencement Ceremonies.