Message from the Acting President
Dear NAACO Colleagues and Friends,
From the moment I attended my first regional meeting in 2003 I have been inspired by the generosity of sharing of knowledge by NAACO colleagues and sponsors. Never, however, have I been more grateful for this community than this past year. As the world reopens at varying rates we continue to have to shift and adjust to our own unique circumstances, and the value of shared learning and creativity remains indispensable.
While the past year has been challenging, the circumstances have also served as a catalyst to propel change, and as an association we are set up well to continue to support, inspire, and connect our members.
- To better serve you the board is excited to launch the new members-only website. Not only will this site allow you to network more efficiently and find the information you need, but it will also host a learning module that will better support the certificate program.
- We are exploring more opportunities for engagement throughout the year in the virtual format that none of us would have chosen but have discovered is both cost effective and breaks down geographic barriers to connection.
- The 2021 virtual annual conference saw a record number of attendees and we will host a hybrid style event in 2022 so that the event continues to be accessible to as many members as possible.
- With support from Executive Director Sara Wood and her team at NAACO HQ, we are creating a new strategic plan that will lead the association over the next three years. Thank you to everyone who completed the membership survey this past spring. The results have given us good insight into who our members are and what you value in the association.
- We know that our best advocates are our members and with your support we will be actively growing membership.
Nothing that we do as an association would be possible without the volunteers who give so generously of their time on committees and on the board. I want to recognize the tremendous leadership of Linda Bekerian who led the association over the past year and wish her well in her retirement from Northeastern University. I am delighted that Alanna Vernon has agreed to remain in her role as past president for a second term. Contributions from Ellen Liebman over her term as director at large for communications have been outstanding and we are pleased she has agreed to serve as the 2022 conference chair. On August 1, we welcome to the board Mary Beth Rehrer to lead the communications portfolio and Jim Vitigliano as director at large of education as Liz McMahan moves into her role as president elect.
If you are curious about how to get more involved in NAACO as a volunteer or to learn what is involved with serving on the board, be sure to join the August Hot Topic Call or fill out the “Get Involved” form on the website.
Congratulations to each of you for all that you have achieved over the past year. I hope that you find some time to recharge before the start of the new academic year. I look forward to seeing you in Philly!
President, NAACO Board of Directors
Manager, Office of Ceremonies and Events/University of Guelph
Commencement 2021 and COVID Fatigue
April Airhart, MPA
Director, University Events
American Public University System
The year 2020 threw us all for a loop when it comes to events and our lives in general. After everything shut down, businesses closed, and months of quarantine and isolation, many of us were screaming for human interaction, and the adoption of virtual meetings and events across companies, conferences, and events around the world was a welcome answer to the isolation. Many of us scrambled to put together virtual events so our graduates felt celebrated, and even with extremely short notice, we were successful. Survey feedback from our institution proved that most thought cancelling was the right decision and most felt celebrated. Feedback also indicated that graduates would likely consider attending a later in-person event. In early 2020 no one really expected COVID to impact our 2021 ceremonies, but that’s exactly what happened. While most of us improved our virtual experiences, the participation and feedback showed we fell short and that COVID fatigue has set in. Everyone is tired of dealing with COVID and everyone is tired of virtual meetings and events.
As event professionals and working professionals, we have a unique perspective from both sides of the coin: planning virtual events and attending them. We asked members of our NAACO Communications Committee to tell us about their 2021 commencement experiences. Some of us planned in person events, some planned hybrid events, and some planned virtual events. Regardless, most included a virtual component and what shocked most of us was the lack of participation in the virtual ceremonies.
Ellen Liebman at the University of Pennsylvania commented: In the College of Arts & Sciences, our virtual celebration this year for the class of 2021 didn’t have great viewership. Our salute last year for the class of 2020 had great “attendance.” I think they were just happy to have anything! This year everyone was jaded by too many Zoom meetings/classes and general COVID fatigue to get excited about anything virtual. Penn as a whole had a commencement for the four undergraduate schools which was in-person (socially distanced and with no guests), so I think many felt that that was enough.
Mary Beth Rehrer at Rutgers University stated: Rutgers University announced the decision in February 2021 to host 100% virtual graduation ceremonies. Located in New Jersey, where the state had some of the strictest event guidelines in the country, we felt there to be an attitude of acceptance for the virtual event. As state restrictions lifted, more and more dissatisfaction was expressed by students and their parents. Everyone wanted to celebrate in-person. This led to decreased event engagement and viewership. Despite this, regalia purchases remained steady as graduates wanted photos of themselves with family and friends on campus and all were interested in collecting cords and stoles that they achieved. Photo moments offer more validation of graduation than the degree itself. Hopefully the members of the class of 2020 and 2021 will be excited to celebrate together—and take many photos—at the in-person celebrations scheduled for this October.
Gabrielle Martinez at New Mexico State University had this to say: We hosted a virtual commencement ceremony and two in-person commencement ceremonies this spring 2021 semester. Initially, we had just planned for a virtual ceremony at the start of the semester, and then pivoted to both an in-person and virtual ceremony in April 2021 with five weeks to plan. Surprisingly, we had an overwhelming response from graduates to do both the virtual and the in-person ceremony. In the fall 2020 semester, I definitely felt the fatigue of graduates though. But offering the virtual ceremony in different sources and with new content created that excitement still. Our virtual ceremony was not on Zoom. It was streamed on social media and also on television to have that live feel. We partnered with a local television channel to host our virtual ceremonies, so we felt like graduates had a bit more excitement from having the ceremony on television as well.
Here at American Public University System, we hosted our event only virtually. We were excited to add the announcement of names to our event, an expensive feature, but based on feedback we received from 2020, a worthwhile addition to ensure our graduates felt special and celebrated on their big day. What we didn’t expect was for our numbers to decrease from over 2,000 participants in 2020 to just over 1,200 in 2021. The lack of participation didn’t justify the costs and we were disappointed, but at the same time we were proud of our efforts to improve our production and to provide a celebration for every graduate if they wanted to be a part of it. We have committed to inviting the graduates of 2020, 2021, and 2022 to our 2022 celebration. Our next challenge is to determine how to celebrate each class individually and accommodate three classes at one event.
Many of you likely experienced the same mix of disappointment and pride. It’s a mix of emotions but not without learning moments. I think the biggest take away from COVID’s impact on events is that even though virtual event fatigue (COVID fatigue) is real, virtual components will always be a part of what we do moving forward. If you are unsure how to accomplish this with what you have, use your NAACO forum and ask for support from your peers!
Finally, I sincerely hope we are all able to celebrate our graduates in person in 2022! Hang in there!
A Pivot to In-Person Commencement
Special Assistant to the Vice President
Communication and External Relations
Fashion Institute of Technology
The 2020–2021 academic year started with many unknowns at FIT. As a college located in the heart of New York City, we did not know when the pandemic would subside, when we would return to normal, or whether we would be able to hold commencement ceremonies in the spring of 2021.
As we began to prepare to plan for 2021 commencement, I attended every Zoom meeting hosted by NAACO and SUNY, and researched every article, website, and lead on anyone willing to address and discuss how to commemorate graduating students’ official rite of passage into real life. Any lead anyone at FIT provided was investigated. My colleagues and I learned of actual virtual ceremonies being planned and held by institutions that had postponed their spring 2020 ceremonies until the fall of 2020 due to their inability to assemble in large gatherings.
To acknowledge the class of 2020, FIT held a virtual celebration during Grad Week in May 2020. Our president had promised the class of 2020 a commencement ceremony as soon as we could meet in person. Over the summer we requested our venue, Radio City Music Hall, hold various dates during the fall when we hoped to hold the postponed spring ceremonies. However, as September drew closer, it became evident that the closures would remain in place through the end of the calendar year. Planning for spring 2021 would include both the class of 2021 and 2020. This meant there would be over 7,500 grads (and their families) who felt cheated of celebrating their once in a lifetime accomplishment.
As the end of the fall semester was drawing to a close the week before Thanksgiving, we continued to wait for word from New York state, New York City, and the State University of New York’s administration on any potential lifting of restrictions in the spring. We hesitantly began to plan for the potential that virtual ceremonies would be inevitable. There was no way we could postpone another commencement season.
Over the winter break, we met with a few vendors who had pivoted their product offerings to accommodate the production of virtual commencement ceremonies. To our relief we were informed that they could easily help successfully pull off a similitude that would be comparable to an in-person graduation ceremony and all in under 45 days! We presented our findings to our president and proceeded to plan for virtual ceremonies for all the class of 2021 and 2020 graduates. We had subcommittees come up with creative ideas for the content of the ceremonies, organize the students by schools, programs, and degrees, drafted communications for the graduates and college community, and began attending tutorials and meeting with StageClip personnel to learn the nuts and bolts of what it would take to pull off what seemed like a herculean feat. We determined that 60 minutes was the maximum a virtual audience could withstand and prepared to broadcast 36 ceremonies.
However, by late February we were now also fielding emails and calls from students, parents, and others pleading for FIT to reconsider. This was due in large part to the inauguration of President Biden, the availability of vaccines, and the news media hype of near future re-openings of large-scale arenas that can safely socially distance audiences and fans. Nothing short of in-person ceremonies would suffice.
Serendipitously on March 1 we received an unexpected email from a special events planner at a most unique venue offering to explore with us the possibility of holding in-person graduation ceremonies in the late spring if sufficient COVID-related restrictions were lifted, of course. The email piqued our interest and I immediately connected with her to learn more. They assured me we would be able to hold in-person graduation ceremonies at their venue, an outdoor concert venue that complied with the appropriate social distancing and safety protocols. They would conduct temperature checks, hand sanitizing, provide PPE, etc. They were awaiting state and city guidelines for in-person gatherings and information on permitted capacity at their outdoor venue by the first week of April and would be executing what is required accordingly. Further, their venue is ADA accessible with a pre-pandemic capacity of 5,000 and could accommodate theater seating for graduates.
A fact sheet was presented to the president indicating that if restrictions were lifted by NYS and NYC the potential assumptions and commitments would include:
- Twenty percent (20%) maximum capacity of 5,000 (or 1,000-person event).
- Expected potential number of graduates that might attend an in-person ceremony, based on previous years’ attendance: approximately 4,500 (60% of all students eligible to graduate).
- Plan to hold a minimum of five ceremonies to accommodate the graduates only in one day, or more ceremonies over two days to also accommodate up to two guests per graduate.
- Ceremonies would include some portion of the virtual ceremony—videos already being produced for use in the virtual ceremony would be included in the in-person ceremonies and last between 60–90 minutes.
- We were able to hold multiple dates over a two-week period (due to limit on permits granted by the NYC Parks Department).
- All seating is outdoors, so no tent and no rain date would be available. Ceremonies would be held rain or shine.
An all-inclusive price package was created that would include a 14-hour day for use of the 15,000 square foot venue, including venue management staff and production team, ushers, security, union personnel to load in, set-up, assist with line-ups, ceremonies, 60-minutes to disinfect and re-set between ceremonies, breaks, and load out, stage set with audio, lighting, video, and live streaming, a center stage video screen to display videos and logos, lectern, wi-fi, NYC Parks Event permit (approval and coordination), stage with two staircases and wheelchair ramp, folding chairs, tables, on-site EMT, and ticketing and assigned seating.
They designed a plan that included all production and labor costs with no additional costs incurred to be billed after the events were held. I considered this approach icing on the cake since it was one of the biggest budget busters at every other venue we had contracted in the 12+ year history working on commencement. They even planned for the backstage area to include an RV and two large tents to be used for green rooms and lounges.
The Central Park Foundation’s SummerStage production team was professional and a refreshing pleasure to work with. A most wonderful end to a 14-month nightmare pandemic!
Past President Alanna Vernon and Director-at-Large for Education Liz McMahan presented at the virtual conference for the Association of Registrars of the Universities and Colleges of Canada (ARUCC) on June 22, 2021. The presentation was on how their institutions each managed their graduation ceremonies during the pandemic and the session had over 70 attendees with a robust Q&A at the end. Alanna and Liz plan to leverage this new relationship to increase awareness of NAACO at Canadian institutions and reach convocation planners through the Registrar’s offices.
Continuing to Celebrate the Class of 2020
Shana C. Greene
Director, University Events
The University of Rhode Island
Given the COVID-19 health crisis in spring 2020 which essentially restricted large, in-person gatherings, the University of Rhode Island made the difficult decision to postpone commencement ceremonies for the class of 2020. Working with the Commencement Task Force, student leaders created a survey that was sent to all graduate and undergraduate students, requesting student preferences and feedback regarding how the university should celebrate and recognize the graduates’ accomplishments.
Of the total 4,316 graduates comprising the class of 2020, 2,453 students completed the survey, providing a large voice representing the URI student community. The survey results revealed that 67% preferred to hold traditional in-person commencement ceremonies at a future time, 27.2% wanted both in-person and virtual celebrations, and 5.8% wanted only a virtual recognition in May 2020. Based upon this feedback, the University of Rhode Island conferred the degrees during a virtual recognition held in May 2020, with plans of holding in-person ceremonies when public guidelines allowed.
At the end of June 2021, as restrictions lifted, URI announced plans to honor the achievements of the class of 2020 through in-person ceremonies, scheduled for Friday, October 1, in the Ryan Center on the University’s Kingston Campus. URI’s annual Alumni and Family Weekend is scheduled for that same weekend, so kicking off the festivities with class of 2020 traditional ceremonies creates the perfect opportunity for these graduates to engage and participate in the numerous alumni and family activities scheduled throughout the weekend. A special gathering to welcome the class of 2020 into the URI alumni community, a football game, tailgating gatherings, and a large entertainment event in the Ryan Center are just a sampling of the many events planned during that weekend.
As the selected venue to host commencement ceremonies, the Ryan Center can accommodate approximately 8,400 attendees, including graduates, limited guests, faculty, and event staff. Before solidifying the ceremony schedule, it was imperative to require a mandatory registration for all qualified graduates. Each member of the class of 2020 received an emailed invitation at their preferred email address with a link to register. The proposed plan outlines having a separate ceremony for the graduate school and, if possible, a single undergraduate ceremony, unless there is an overwhelming response. The platform party will include all college deans and graduates will be separated and recognized with their own colleges.
The number of guests each graduate is allowed will also be based upon registration numbers and venue capacity. Electronic ticketing will be utilized, providing unique QR codes for each ticket to be scanned at the entrances. The ceremonies will be livestreamed for friends, family, and supporters around the world to participate, and recordings will be located on the commencement website following the ceremonies.
Through benchmarking with NAACO colleagues and area schools that recently held celebrations for their class of 2020 graduates in May or plan to hold ceremonies during the summer of 2021, a 20% participation rate was estimated, which would be equal to approximately 865 graduates participating in October ceremonies. The deadline for registering was on July 14 and, at this time, 822 graduates have registered. After the deadline, graduates interested in participating will be added to a waiting list and will be admitted based upon venue capacity.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused many interruptions for colleges and universities across the country and world, affecting traditional plans for celebrating the class of 2020 and the class of 2021. URI carefully listened to the members of the class of 2020 and their preferences for alternative celebrations. With eased public guidelines, traditional in-person ceremonies were finally scheduled and will provide the individualized recognition desired by the graduates, including having their names announced, crossing the stage in front of family and friends, and having professional photos taken wearing their regalia. Ultimately, however, these intrusions created new opportunities to partner with Alumni and Family Weekend and successfully celebrate the class of 2020 graduates, their accomplishments, and contributions to the URI campus, community, and world.
Looking Forward: The Class of 2022
Impacts of Change on the Future of Our Industry
Graduation & Curriculum Data Specialist
New Mexico State University
The commencement and event planning industry has changed within the past year, and we will continue to feel the effects for years to come. Decisions and plans continue to pivot and change quickly for all of us. As event planners, we will define the future of the industry with our corporate partners.
The biggest elephant in the room is now to define and develop how a hybrid ceremony will look. The expectation is that our online community of graduates will continue to be recognized in an accessible format. We will continue to define the hybrid format while keeping the traditions and historical elements that make commencement special at each of our institutions.
For some institutions, they may be finding ways to make commencement that much more meaningful for the long-anticipated ceremony of the classes of 2020 and/or 2021 within the next year. Becoming video producers, new venues, fireworks, and new engaging technology will all help create this celebratory environment. We are creating this while managing tight budgets and to some extent Zoom fatigue and burn out from tight timelines and the endless change. As event planners, we must give ourselves some grace at times as we are all figuring out and defining what the future will look like for our industry. Gain student feedback and ownership, set goals, and try not to stress about the smallest things on the tightest timelines. We are perfectionists, but only we will notice that one chair on the stage that looks askew. Always keep in mind our overall mission of creating a safe space to celebrate our student accomplishments with their families and friends and know that we are all in the same headspace as you are.
NAACO colleagues, thank you for continuing to share your knowledge with us. Please ensure to take some time off to recharge and take some time to think about how we can transform and keep the traditions alive in our new commencement planning world.
Update from NAACO Headquarters
I can’t believe a whole year has gone by already. Last July, my team came on board as the new staff for NAACO, and we have officially reached the point where we can’t say we are “New to NAACO” anymore. This past year has had its challenges in light of the pandemic, but the NAACO community has thrived in spite of circumstances. We have accomplished a great deal together and as we move into a new NAACO year, I am looking forward to all of the projects and initiatives on the horizon. I am especially looking forward to the launch of the new members-only web benefits with a new platform for NAACO members to connect and a brand new learning management system to house our video archives and more. I would like to take a moment to thank NAACO’s leadership for how we have developed our partnership over the last year. NAACO volunteers are so incredibly dedicated to the betterment of the community, and this transition was all the better with your support and guidance. The future will likely bring new challenges, but with that we will also have new opportunities to help our members grow. I genuinely look forward to our next year together. Stay tuned for some new launches over the next few weeks.
Sara L. Wood, MBA, CAE
NAACO Executive Director