Creating a Commencement Worthy of the Class of 2020

By Danica Fisher ’05, August 14, 2020
How more than 50 faculty and staff members pulled off the first virtual commencement ceremonies in IC’s history.

In June when it became clear that Ithaca College would not be able to host an in-person Commencement ceremony, more than 50 faculty and staff members began the hard work of devising a creative way to celebrate graduating students that would make this a memorable, momentous occasion in their lives. They wanted to make sure that this historic class, who had missed out on so many of the typical traditions and festivities, would still be celebrated in spectacular fashion. 

“I think everybody involved was doing it because they wanted make the experience better for our 2020 graduates who had it pretty rough,” said Dave Prunty, executive director of auxiliary services and co-chair of the Commencement Committee. “Anything we could do to make it a better experience was what people were motivated by.” 

The large number of staff and faculty who contributed to the planning and operation of the five virtual ceremonies includes the Commencement Committee, the production team, the Zoom technical operations team, the Zoom pinners and camera operators, the Zoom support team, and video production.  

“People might be surprised to know that the amount of planning and preparation, testing, training and rehearsing needed to pull off these virtual ceremonies was the same as what it takes to make Commencement happen in the stadium each year. So many people volunteered their time to make the ceremonies a success.” 

Paul Galgoczy, audio visual services manager in Conference and Event Services

behind the scenes at Commencement

Chrissy Guest (left) and team working during the virtual Commencement ceremonies.

“I think the sheer number of people who came together to make this happen just blows my mind,” said Chrissy Guest, associate professor in the Department of Media Arts, Sciences and Studies who also directed the Commencement ceremonies. “It's so apparent that they did it because we love our students and we wanted the graduates to feel special, even though they couldn’t be on campus.”  

The Commencement committee was made up of a group of volunteer faculty and staff led by three co-chairs: Prunty; MaryAnn Taylor, executive assistant to the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs; and Doreen Hettich-Atkins, executive director of student affairs and campus life. The Commencement Committee was tasked with figuring out how to host a virtual commencement, and what elements to bring to that celebration. 

“Our committee began scrambling to figure out what we were going to do,” Prunty said. “We started looking at what different institutions had done with virtual commencements, and they weren't going very well. We really wanted to make it meaningful. We wanted to think outside the box and try different things. We had to work as a group to figure out what was possible, and then at some point you have to stop with ideas and just make it happen. ” 

And the Commencement Committee had to make it happen fast. “We only had about a month, so that's a super accelerated timeline to try to pull something like this off,” said Prunty. 

Collaboration Made It Happen

“I was really pleasantly surprised about the tremendous new collaboration, a whole bunch of faculty and staff from the Park School stepped up to help make this happen,” said Prunty. 

Paul Galgoczy, audio visual services manager in Conference and Event Services helped with the operation of Zoom during the ceremonies, including managing guest speaker appearances, preparing graduates for their onscreen moment, managing who was able to access the meeting, renaming attendees and monitoring chat and the gallery for any problems, along with many other duties. 

“People might be surprised to know that the amount of planning and preparation, testing, training and rehearsing needed to pull off these virtual ceremonies was the same as what it takes to make Commencement happen in the stadium each year,” said Galgoczy. “So many people volunteered their time to make the ceremonies a success.” 

Behind the Scenes

In order to recognize students individually, Guest utilized a technique that would allow her to bring each student to the screen live, which has not been done to this level before. They used a special technique to pin the graduates. Additionally, those involved in the live streaming of the event utilized Zoom and YouTube. They then curated the YouTube social media comments back into Zoom, so students could see those comments as well. 

“It took a lot of rehearsing and it took a lot of collaboration to make that happen, but it was amazing and difficult and scary,” said Guest. 

student with snake

Jordon Gallant '20 celebrating with a snake.

Guest also thought there would be room for them to incorporate musical performances into Commencement. Erik Kibelsbeck, concerts and facilities manager, along with other members of the School of Music, helped to make the musical numbers special for graduates. The “Hindsight Fanfare,” composed by Leon Yu ’20, was featured at the beginning of the ceremony. 

“The fanfare, which normally starts the procession, was another project that would have happened anyway, but had to become a virtual performance, with performers at their homes being edited together,” said Kibelsbeck.   

“Determinate,” by Lemonade Mouth, was performed by Ithaca College’s a capella groups — Premium Blend, Ithacappella and IC Voicestream — and was another fan-favorite of the Commencement ceremony. The ceremony concluded with a rendition of “Ithaca Forever,” IC’s alma mater. 

“Students recorded their own parts from where they were, and these were assembled into the final production,” said Kibelsbeck. “In addition to current students, many past choir members were invited to sing as well, and enthusiastically joined in the beloved ‘Ithaca Forever.’” 

Despite pre-recorded performances and other prep-work that was done remotely, there were still some jobs that needed to be done in person, and they were not without challenges. 

behind the scenes at virtual Commencement

Park staff and faculty in the control room.

“A unique challenge of this year’s ceremonies was that many of the people supporting the events were working remotely from home, along with a team in the Park School studios,” said Galgoczy. “Being physically distant created some challenges for communicating behind the scenes throughout the events, which we overcame using Microsoft Teams and an additional simultaneous Zoom meeting just for communicating to each other.” 

Hindered by a Hurricane

On Tuesday, Aug. 4, the Roy H. Park School of Communications was set to hold its Commencement ceremony, when Hurricane Isaias hit, leaving many without power on the East Coast. That meant some graduates would not have been able to participate in the ceremony, and the power outages could have caused a disruption in the broadcasting of the ceremony. Ithaca College made the decision to delay Commencement until that Thursday evening, to give parents and families time to figure out how to participate.  

“With the hurricane, who would expect that a virtual event would be rained out?”

Chrissy Guest, associate professor in the Department of Media Arts, Sciences and Studies 

“With the hurricane, who would expect that a virtual event would be rained out?” asked Guest. “At that point, our hands were tied, but we at least could delay it for the night of the storm. For the most part people were super receptive, super appreciative, and understood why it was important to move the ceremony.” 

To make the decision to delay Commencement, they mapped out where the graduates who were participating lived, since they had provided their location for the graduation ceremony itself, and over half were in the affected states.  

“It just felt like the right thing to do,” said Guest. “And unfortunately, we couldn't delay any further because of the orientations the following week, we were going to lose all those Zoom operators.” 

Many graduates used the extra day to figure out what they needed to do to participate. Students used their cars to charge phones, some parents shined flashlights on the graduates when it was their turn to come to the screen, and others were in their high school parking lots to use the WiFi.  

Celebrating Our Graduates

The musical performances, the speakers, the address by President Shirley M. Collado, the confetti moment, and the special guest alumni appearances: all of these elements made the Commencement ceremonies special. But many said the highlight was being brought to the screen, so each graduate got their personal moment to celebrate. 

“To do this, volunteers were responsible for pinning each student, who were basically camera operators,” said Guest.  

Making sure students’ cameras were turned on at the precise moment was part staging and part luck. This was further complicated by last minute additions to participating graduates.  

“In an effort to ensure everyone had a chance to participate, we added a number of graduates to the list to appear onscreen on the day of each ceremony, which presented several challenges to the team working behind the scenes to accommodate the changes,” said Galgoczy.  

Madeline Veneziano graduating

Madeline Veneziano '20 celebrating with her dog, Mulligan.

But the pinning and video efforts all paid off as students came to the screen and celebrated their accomplishment in their own way. 

“People only had about 10 seconds, but they took advantage of it and really showed their personalities,” said Prunty. 

“Once it was confirmed that our graduation would be virtual, I was concerned that an online ceremony wouldn't evoke the same emotions that walking across the stage would,” said Maddie Veneziano ’20. “However, as I was waiting to be called to the screen, I became more and more excited. Having ten seconds to celebrate once my name was called felt extremely personalized and special. I was surprised that the virtual ceremony still made me feel so connected to my peers and the rest of the IC community.” 

“Just pure joy, not only from the graduates, but their families, and the graduates made their moment elaborate,” said Guest. 

While bringing students to the screen, special guest speakers from each of the five schools were brought in either live or pre-recorded to send the new graduates words of encouragement and support. 

“It was important to celebrate them and to let them know that they had these amazing alumni that were there for them,” said Guest. “I think it was just important for them to feel as celebrated as we could make it, even if they couldn't be on South Hill.” 

“Watching people's expressions as it was happening was pretty amazing,” said Prunty. “Watching the energy of the graduates and their parents or their family members was pretty awesome.” 

2020 Commencement

Ithaca College's five virtual Commencement ceremonies were held Aug. 2 through Aug. 6.