Behind the Scenes of the Biggest Campus Production of the Year
May 9, 2023 — Commencement ceremonies at Marist are as picturesque as a postcard, situated on the Campus Green, overlooking the Hudson River. As thousands get ready to pack the venue on May 19 and 20, it’s sometimes easy to overlook all that goes into the production. Behind it is a dedicated group of volunteers who make it happen each and every year.
Each Commencement features something new. Joey Wall, Director of Media and Instructional Technology, is in charge of Marist’s Media Center, which is responsible for all audio and video production. This year’s big addition to the production will be seen no matter where you’re sitting for the ceremony — two, 12-foot high HD video screens. The screens made their debut during President Kevin Weinman’s Inauguration in September.
Kate Donham (far right) and Michael Lewis (second from right) on stage during Commencement.
“The Media Center is proud to say that we have done something new and different EVERY year,” said Wall. “In 1995, it was me in front of the stage with a camcorder recording the ceremony. It’s [since] grown into a huge production. This year, for the first time we are using video walls and showing a student slide show prior to step off.”
Kate Donham, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and co-chair of the Commencement Committee, has been a lead officer of the production for 16 years. Her team in Academic Affairs also runs the Honors Medal and Baccalaureate Ceremonies the evening before Commencement. While she leads the overall effort and planning, she’s also connected to all aspects of the production, including selecting award winners and coordinating student speakers. Donham’s Commencement world features details big and small.
“I love being on stage every year and watching the students as they cross,” said Donham. “They’re so happy that it makes me happy. I see photos and videos, and I’m usually beaming because I’m so glad for our graduates. I love seeing employees walk across who are getting their degrees, and I love to see employees who are walking with their graduates.”
Michael Lewis is Marist’s Registrar and while this will be just his second Commencement at Marist, his team has worked the event for many years. The Registrar’s Office gives students their final clearance for graduation and is responsible for important elements such as diplomas, diploma covers, regalia, and lineup cards.
“Although Commencement season is very busy for our office, everyone jumps in and helps. During the week of Commencement, we have extended hours to accommodate students’ schedules, so they can pick up regalia and lineup cards,” said Lewis. “We aim to accommodate all students so they can have a memorable Commencement ceremony.”
As Associate Director of Safety and Security at Marist, Brian Dolansky and the Safety and Security team are responsible for a number of tasks throughout campus during Commencement, including parking and traffic control, law enforcement, fire department and EMS coordination and overall venue safety & security.
“Our team is all over campus during the events to ensure we are ready to assist anyone that needs help,” said Dolansky. “Our staff members have years of experience facilitating large events on campus and are very good at what they do.”
Jean DeFino is an administrative coordinator at Marist who takes on the additional responsibility of leading the usher team. She recruits student workers and collaborates with various offices to facilitate tasks such as setting up directional signs, distributing programs, hanging banners for the lineup, and guiding guests and graduates to their seats while ensuring they are correctly lined up in the right order.
Joey Wall (left) and Lisa Hamel (right) from the Media Center behind the scenes at a commencement ceremony.
While Commencement ceremonies create lifelong memories for students and their families, the staff and faculty involved in the production have also developed their own cherished moments.
“One of my personal favorite moments was when Governor David Paterson was our speaker,” remembered Donham. “I was seated behind him and just doing all of my usual stage managing on stage. At one point he turned around, reached out his hand, and thanked me for all I was doing for the ceremony. He is legally blind, so that he noticed and took the time to reach out a hand to me in that moment meant a lot.”
“My memorable moments are probably too many to count,” said Wall. “Working with my team of staff and students, first and foremost. There are tons of weather stories too. I also remember being very pregnant and working, twice — 7 months the first time, 9 months the second!”
“One of the first years I hired student workers to be commencement ushers, two met for the first time,” said DeFino. “After they graduated, I was informed that they ended up getting married.”
In all, more than a hundred Marist staff, faculty, students and other volunteers contribute to the Commencement ceremony each year.