The Mace – January 2023


Message From the President

Liz McMahan
President, NAACO Board of Directors
Director, Congress 2023, York University

As a new year begins, we look to the many possibilities ahead of us. One of the opportunities I look forward to each year is our annual conference, a chance to connect with, learn from and be inspired by NAACO colleagues. 2023 brings us to beautiful Vancouver – the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations – and our first fully in-person conference since 2020. The last three years have reminded us of the importance of community and connection, and also of the need to be adaptable and innovative. It is in this spirit that we are excited to launch our new Virtual Pass which will give members the opportunity to watch recordings of conference education sessions asynchronously, regardless of their attendance at the conference.

Our volunteer Conference, Communications, Education, and Membership committees, led by president-elect Jim Vitagliano and assisted by our team at headquarters, have been working diligently to create a conference inspired by our theme, Strong Foundations and Expanding Horizons. Conference attendees will learn from member and industry experts at educational sessions and keynote presentations. There will also be opportunities to network with those in your region and delve into topics important to you at roundtable discussions. The full schedule is now available online so that you can select which educational sessions you want to attend. If you are attending with other colleagues from your institution, consider taking a “divide and conquer” approach to take in as many sessions as possible. And if you are pursuing the NAACO Certificate in Academic Ceremonies, make sure to review which sessions will count towards your completion requirements.

The ongoing growth and success of NAACO wouldn’t be possible without the valuable support and partnership of our corporate sponsors. I encourage you to visit the Corporate Showcase and attend our new Commercial Corners to get to know them. In addition to the products and services they offer, sponsors are a tremendous resource given the experience they have accumulated in the thousands of ceremonies they have seen over the years. Take the time to tap into their vast knowledge during the Opening Night Reception or over coffee on a break.

For those unable to join this year’s conference, please remember that NAACO offers year-round educational and professional networking opportunities. Our Hot Topics calls and Regional Meetings provide both seasoned professionals as well as those newer to the industry the opportunity to come together, collaborate, and elevate each other’s ceremonies with bright ideas, fresh perspectives, and invaluable experience. NAACO Connect gives members access to an online community where you can solicit feedback and share expertise with colleagues.

Wishing you all the best for a safe and successful new year!


Join Us At the NAACO 2023 Annual Conference!

Liz King
Director, Ceremonies & Events, University of British Columbia
NAACO Conference Committee Chair

By the time this arrives in your inbox, we will be two short weeks away from the 2023 NAACO Conference in Vancouver, BC! Your NAACO Conference Committee is very much looking forward to seeing you February 6-8! For those of you who have been waiting to register, now is the time. For up to date information about the schedule, hotel, registration and more, visit

On the fence about registering or looking for more of the inside scoop on what to expect? Read on!

Grow your professional network – We’ve got roundtables, social events and sightseeing to provide opportunities for you to connect with others. Settle in during your stay in Vancouver and meet new colleagues at one of our Meet & Eat dinners, an opportunity to check out local fare and stretch your legs near the hotel. Sign up soon to save your spot! Don your favorite winter toque (What’s a toque, you ask? Check out CBC’s Word Nerd to learn more!) and join us at our Night Out at Grouse Mountain. Bring your winter wear for our visit to Grouse Mountain – check current mountain weather conditions for some hints of what to expect.

Celebrate! – Like all of our own students, our NAACO certificate program grads have missed out on their certificate graduations since we last held them in 2020. We look forward to celebrating certificate program grads from our classes of 2021, 2022 and 2023 during our opening ceremony.

Support NAACO Cares – We are honoured to have the opportunity to support the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society as our 2023 NAACO Cares organization. Join us as we welcome representatives from the Society throughout our conference and learn more about the community they serve. Our fundraising efforts will focus on Society programs that support education.

Learn! – Of course, we’re all ultimately attending to learn from the best and brightest in our industry! Read further on in the newsletter to find out what you can expect in our education sessions this year and mark January 27 or January 31 on your calendar to join the dedicated conference Hot Topic call to learn more.

Get your game on – Could this be the year you top the charts? Itching to scratch your competitive itch? Join in on the fun for chances to win throughout the conference. Watch for information about the conference app to find out more about gamification over the entire conference. Be sure to attend the Opening Night Reception to get in on some trivia fun as you get to know each other and our conference sponsors and vendors through an interactive game. And of course, prizes are at stake!

Explore! – We hope you’ll find some time to enjoy Canada’s west coast while you’re here. Visit Destination Vancouver for ideas on what to see, where to eat, neighborhoods to walk, and what to pack. Weather in Vancouver is generally mild, however it’s best to be prepared with winter and wet weather options, including a waterproof jacket, footwear and layers.

The NAACO 2023 Conference is hosted on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.


What You’ll Learn at the NAACO 2023 Annual Conference

Marcus Jones
Chief of Staff & Protocol Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, Arizona State University
NAACO Director-at-Large, Education

Patricia Nolin
Assistant Director of College Events and Engagement, Rhode Island College
NAACO Education Committee Chair

On behalf of the Education Committee, we are pleased to serve as the curators for the educational content that will take place at the NAACO Annual Conference in Vancouver in February. We have worked with the conference committee to create a robust schedule of learning opportunities to give you the knowledge and skills to return to your campus to make impactful changes. From our keynotes, moderated discussion, and concurrent sessions, we are sure you will have an engaging time.

On Monday, our opening keynote will focus on how Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) can bring meaning to our work and create memorable experiences for those we engage. As DEIA continues to be a priority for our institutions, it is important that academic ceremony planners reflect on how we can incorporate successful practices into our work every day. Sharon Newport, who has been consulting the NAACO Board, will give us strategies that allow us to implement and start the discussion around DEIA in our ceremonies.

Similar to previous years, there will be six different time slots of educational sessions where you will learn from your colleagues on topics that they are passionate about and on topics that our membership has suggested.

Some themes that emerged from our conference sessions are:

  • Maintaining and enhancing tradition through a DEIA lens
  • Using technology to enhance our ceremonies for the guest and student experience
  • Leading change management at all levels
  • Creating a ceremony that shapes the experience of our students’ college experience

Moderated roundtable sessions will return, during which attendees will have guided exercises and discussions on three critical topics chosen by the Education Committee. The goal of these sessions is to allow attendees to network, share best practices, and have dedicated time to take a deep dive into something important to them.

Attendees can choose to attend one of the following:

  1. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, where we will explore the role and impact of DEIA in our ceremonies.
  2. Accessibility, where we will strategize how our ceremonies can be designed to be welcoming for all regardless of ability.
  3. Budget, where we will discuss how we are adapting to shrinking budgets and higher costs to produce our ceremonies.

Our closing keynote address will give us a moment to focus on “us” as individuals. As planners, we spend so much time catering to the needs of our guests, students, and leadership but that consideration is not always extended to ourselves. Therefore, an element of self-care is important to the conference. Tiara Cash will take us through the framework of Equitable Mindset (Cash, et al, 2021) to create a container of reflection for ourselves to focus on healing and well-being.

We hope that you take part in the many opportunities to catch up with an old colleague, share an idea with a colleague, meet a new colleague, and most importantly learn something new.


Let’s Push Reset!

Amber Sega
Director of University Commencements, California Baptist University
Communications, Conference, and Education Committees

The holidays are gone, and a new year has begun!

As we look at the possibilities for 2023, we are greatly reminded of all that we aspire to do. As event planners, we are looking way down the road, thoughtfully preparing for all that lies ahead. To make sure we stay healthy mentally and physically, we must remember to take the time for self-care and self-reflection. By setting realistic goals or resolutions, we must allow ourselves to repeatedly push the reset button throughout 2023.

In the last edition of the Mace in 2022, we discussed caring for ourselves by eating regular meals, taking the time to breathe, getting plenty of rest, and managing stress. As we finished off 2022, we had gatherings with friends and family, convocations/commencements and events, travel plans, and crazy schedules. We probably threw our prepped meals out the window, let go of our exercise routines, and wrecked our sleep patterns. To start 2023 right, we need to show ourselves some grace, and begin again.

New Year’s resolutions can be daunting and a reminder of our failures to complete a task or goal. Just like in the heat of an event, things may go wrong, but we pivot to correct our course and complete our tasks with success. When this occurs, we learn and grow from our experiences. However, when we fall off track with our resolutions, we tend to just give up. Today, make the decision to instead course-correct and keep going. By making daily/weekly resolutions, we can set realistic and attainable goals.

Here are a few helpful ones for event planners:

  1. Journal
  2. Prep healthy meals and snacks
  3. Get plenty of rest and take breaks to breath and regroup
  4. Get out there and move by getting some exercise
  5. Meet new people and expand your friend and networking circle
  6. Set reminders in our calendars to best organize our time
  7. Show acts of kindness and service for others

For some additional goals, watch this video: 8 Minimalist Habits to Start in 2023

A brand-new year does not have to equal failed resolutions, but instead the institution of new and healthy habits for the body and mind to make us a success in 2023 and beyond. Don’t be afraid to fail a goal and push reset. Be afraid to never try! Happy New Year everyone!


The Challenge of Ceremony Planning: Quality or Convenience?

Andrea Walker
Event Manager, James Madison University
NAACO Certificate Program, Year 2 Candidate

There are so many important elements when it comes to planning and implementing a university commencement ceremony, or possibly multiple ceremonies depending on your institution. These elements range from the dress code of graduates and the platform party members, to who the guest and keynote speaker(s) will be, to the livestream setup and beyond.

For the purpose of this article, I’ll focus mainly on the speaker as a ceremony component when focusing on the quality versus convenience of a commencement ceremony. Many institutions have a student speaker and a keynote speaker at graduation events. At my univeristy, there is an inconsistency in the inclusion of a speaker between the Winter and Spring ceremonies. At the Winter Commencement, which is significantly smaller than our spring ceremonies, there is traditionally a keynote speaker. At the last several Spring ceremonies, there have not been a guest or keynote speaker at many of our college ceremonies. Some of the college events choose a faculty member to deliver a speech, but others choose not to have a speaker at all, why not? A keynote speaker is a very important element in making each ceremony special and memorable—it also sends a specially-crafted message to the graduating class.

When I was newly hired and preparing for my first official commencement ceremony as the Event Manager, I heard about some of the big names the University has had speak at past ceremonies. Since then, I feel the significance of a speaker has been pushed aside for the Spring ceremonies to instead focus on the event length, speed of ceremony, and to move on to the next ceremony in a timely fashion. Time always seems to be the main topic in any commencement meeting we have leading up to the big day. Questions such as, “how can we get through the ceremony more quickly?”, “how can we get the families and guests out of the arena more quickly?”, “how do we get guests off the plaza or out of the parking deck faster?” and we are focused on speed and logistics, not the quality of the event. Despite these discussions, we know there will still be plenty of families sticking around afterwards to take photos with their graduates.

There are plenty of other components that make a commencement ceremony memorable, such as the graduate’s name being read and walking across the stage for their diploma, and shaking the Dean’s or President’s hand, but wait… we don’t do that anymore either. When COVID hit, our President made the decision to no longer shake hands with graduates as they cross the stage. Then the University also decided to eliminate the scrolls that we used to hand to each graduate. Small, but significant gestures have been lost.

So, what is making our ceremonies memorable for our graduates exactly? We still incorporate some special elements into our ceremonies of course. We have been implementing Grad Roll, which is a program affiliated with Grad Images Photography. Grad Roll is a system that allows for each graduate’s name to be displayed on the videoboard as they cross the stage. Each graduate has a name card with a QR code, which also acts as their seating assignment. The graduate takes their name card to the stage with them, someone scans their card, and each name is placed in a cue on a laptop. Once their name is read by the reader it will then be displayed on the board by the individual operating the computer. This has become an exciting element for our graduates, and our department has found that it helps cut back on the number of late additions on graduation day since graduates are worried their name won’t be displayed if they don’t register earlier for that name card.

Our December ceremony is significantly smaller and has about a third of the number of graduates, but just because it is smaller and easier to execute doesn’t mean it should be any less significant—all ceremonies should be special. I do agree that timing and speed are definitely important factors in any event or ceremony, but we also need to remember that we are a higher education institution, and we are higher education event professionals for a reason. We should be dedicated to creating memorable events and ceremonies for our graduates because commencement is a once-in-a-lifetime event for them, and potentially their families as well.

What seems convenient and efficient for faculty and staff at a commencement ceremony, is not always going to be well-received by the family members who are traveling from near and far to see their graduate walk across the stage, maybe for the first time in their lives. The graduate and guest experience is always something that should be considered in the planning of our ceremonies, and we don’t want to lose sight of this. As planners, we should strive to be more conscious of how this perspective might guide us in our decision making.

Although we haven’t yet created any polls here at the University to ask our graduates what elements they enjoy most at their ceremonies, I think that could and should be in our near future. Working with other universities through NAACO has sparked this interest and it is important to consider all elements in our ceremonies. What are some of your favorite elements at your commencement ceremonies as event planners? Share your favorite elements on NAACO Connect so we can all grow together!


NAACO Member Spotlight with Whitney Smith

Heather Violett
Events Manager, Academic Affairs,
University of Massachusetts Global

We continue our Member Spotlight feature this quarter with the wonderful Whitney Smith from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). She is the Director of Ceremonies and Special Events in the Office of the Chancellor and has worked on commencement for six years. Whitney serves as the NAACO Southwest Regional Director. 


What do you love most about your work?

I love working collaboratively with my team and other campus units to create tangible experiences that highlight UC Davis. Whether it’s our outstanding students, amazing faculty, donors, or alumni, showcasing and honoring them is what I enjoy most. 

What’s your best piece of advice for our NAACO community planning events?

Two tips:

  1. Commencements are about and for the graduates.
  2. Embrace change. Don’t be afraid to switch things up. 

What do you like to do for fun when you are not planning events? 

I like to binge watch TV shows (mostly documentaries, historical period-piece shows, and reality shows), and spending time with family. 

Share your NAACO origin story and how you got involved in your volunteer roles.

Thankfully, UC Davis was a member of NAACO when I started in this role in 2016. I am currently the Southwest Regional Director and serve on the membership committee. Volunteering on various committees allows me to stay connected on a more intimate level with NAACO.

What is your favorite part of commencement day?

My favorite parts are the day-of energy and excitement of commencement. I also love seeing the look of accomplishment on the graduates’ faces, as well as the sense of pride for family and guests.

Share a topic that you’d love other members to provide suggestions for.

I am interested to learn how other members have success getting buy-in from campus leaders, faculty, and various stakeholders to provide the necessary support and resources needed for commencement. 

What guilty pleasures gets you through the planning process? 

My go-to guilty pleasures are Red Vines and Peanut M&M’s.

How do you stay motivated when the going gets tough?

Remembering why we do what we do helps me stay motivated. It’s my role to lead campus and various teams to create the best ‘once in a lifetime’ experience we can for our graduates and guests. 

Do you or your team have something special you do before or after events to celebrate? 

Each morning of commencement, someone brings donuts for the staff volunteers and now it is a tradition our teams expect. After commencement season, we host a thank you party for our campus colleagues, such as an ice cream social or silent disco party. 

What is something about you that might surprise people?

I have a very in-depth knowledge of foreign and domestic event protocol and diplomacy. I have had the pleasure of working with dignitaries, US Presidents and Heads of State, ambassadors, and other diplomats.


Welcome New Institutions and Affiliate Members!

NAACO is the only professional association for college and university commencement and convocation officers throughout North America. Only post-secondary institutions that handle commencement, convocation, and graduation ceremonies are welcome to join.

Affiliate members are the individuals of a member institution and can be added by the primary NAACO member. We look to engage with affiliate members on NAACO Connect, on social media sites, and at upcoming events, including hot topic calls, the annual conference, and regional meetings.

Let’s welcome these institutions that are new to NAACO in 2023:

North Carolina A&T State University
1601 East Market Street
Greensboro, NC 27411
University of Hawai’i at Mānoa
2500 Campus Road
Hawaii Hall 209
Honolulu, HI 96822
Murray State University
113 Sparks Hall
Murray, KY 42071

A complete list of member institutions can be found on the Member Institutions page.


Update From NAACO Headquarters

Sara L. Wood, MBA, CAE
NAACO Executive Director

With our annual conference only a few weeks away, the NAACO staff and volunteers look forward to celebrating another year of growth and success for our association. I would like to take this opportunity to extend my deepest gratitude to our dedicated volunteers for pulling together what will be a phenomenal program. Without their efforts, this conference would not be possible.

In addition to the conference, HQ has been working behind the scenes to assist volunteers bring the community other benefits such as hot topic calls, managing the online community, and creating opportunities for members to excel.

One such opportunity is our Certificate in Academic Ceremonies program. This program is designed for those who wish to improve their skills in planning and executing academic ceremonies. It is an excellent way to gain recognition for your work and to demonstrate your commitment to the field. Enrollment for this program is still available for the new cycle, and if you are attending the conference in Vancouver, it’s not too late to sign up. More about the program can be found here. Onsite registration will be available, and if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Once again, I would like to thank you for your continued support of NAACO and I look forward to seeing you at the conference!


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