The Mace – July 23, 2020.



Message from the President

Dear NAACO Colleagues and Friends,

I hope this edition of the MACE newsletter finds you healthy and taking some time to relax after the last few months. I offer my congratulations to everyone who found meaningful ways to celebrate their graduates and their accomplishments during these unique times. I know that we have met these challenges by leaning on and learning from each other, and from taking advantage of the educational opportunities and sponsor resources that NAACO has provided. As always, we are each other’s resources, champions, and friends.

I would like to thank all our members for their contributions to making NAACO a great resource for all. In particular, I thank our volunteers (regional directors, committee members, and my fellow Board members) for their dedication and hard work. I’m delighted to congratulate the following Board members who begin their terms on August 1: President Linda Bekerian, Director of Academic Ceremonies, Northeastern University, and President-Elect Claire Alexander, Special Projects Manager, University of Guelph. Also starting on August 1, I’d like to welcome Director at Large for Membership James Cuaresma, Director of University Events and Protocol, California State University, Los Angeles, and Director at Large for Strategic Initiatives Serena Wallace, Event Coordinator, Georgia Institute of Technology.

At the annual membership meeting this past February, the Board reported that we had reached the end of the contract with our association management company and that we had begun the RFP process for a new contract. I am pleased to announce that we have completed the process and have selected a new company to manage our association. I want to thank CMA Association Management for all its work with NAACO, and we wish Michael Canino, our departing executive director, all the best.

I’d like to welcome Management Solutions Plus (MSP) to NAACO and introduce you to our new executive director, Sara Wood. We are excited to work with Sara and the MSP team!

I’ll end my final President’s letter by quoting Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer for British Columbia: be kind, be calm and be safe.

Take good care,

Alanna Vernon
President, NAACO Board of Directors
Associate Director, Ceremonies Office, UBC’s Okanagan Campus 


NAACO Announces Executive Director and Management Team 

Last year, NAACO began an RFP process to select a new management firm for the organization. The Board is now pleased to announce the results of that search as well as the details of the transition this summer. After an extensive evaluation process, the Board selected Management Solutions Plus, Inc. (MSP) located in Rockville, Maryland.  With a transition that began in mid-June, MSP took over full operations for NAACO on July 1, 2020.

“NAACO is excited to be partnering with a company that has a long and highly respected reputation in the association management community as MSP,” stated Alanna Vernon, NAACO president. “Our community of commencement officers has been greatly impacted by the recent pandemic, and we feel confident that MSP’s skilled staff is capable of helping our association navigate this uncertain climate while continuing to help us grow and offer our members great education and value.”

As part of this transition, NAACO now has a new Executive Director, Sara L. Wood, MBA, CAE. Ms. Wood has more than 15 years of experience in the association management field, with an extensive background in strategic planning, membership growth, public relations, and education development. “It is clear to me that NAACO’s membership is incredibly engaged and robust,” said Ms. Wood. “I’m looking forward to helping the organization grow as well as face the challenges of uncertain times.”

What this means for NAACO Members

  • NAACO’s high-quality service to its members will continue uninterrupted, just with some new faces and names.
  • If you volunteer with NAACO, you will be hearing from new team members soon if you haven’t already.
  • NAACO’s new phone number is 301.634.7001
  • NAACO’s new address is:

1300 Piccard Dr., Suite LL 14

Rockville, MD 20850

As the full transition completes later this month, the NAACO Board extends its sincere appreciation to its outgoing Executive Director, Michael Canino, for his service and dedication to the organization.

If you have any questions about the transition to MSP, please email us at



Two Examples of How Universities Handled Ceremonies in 2020

Walden University
Monica Nelson
Senior Manager, University Events

Walden University is an online university with few opportunities for face-to-face connections throughout the student journey. Commencement is the signature event where graduates come together to celebrate their accomplishments with their faculty, peers, and support networks.

Because Walden graduates are adult learners and are using their finances and time to attend commencement, we have a policy that graduates can attend any future ceremony that best fits their schedule. With this policy and the growing health risks of getting together in large groups, it became clear that we should cancel our in-person ceremony and invite the Summer Class of 2020 to a future in-person ceremony.

Our face-to-face ceremony was scheduled for July 18, so when the decision to cancel was made in late March, we had about three months to plan. It was important to the community to find a way to celebrate and honor our newest group of graduates. We wanted to do something meaningful but different so that we wouldn’t take away from some of the traditions of our face-to-face ceremony. It was decided to move forward with a suite of virtual experiences to mark the day.

We started off with a series of video messages from our leaders explaining the cancellation, celebrating our graduates, and inviting them to our 50th Anniversary Graduate Celebration. We then sent out an invitation to our class, with some prompts for home addresses and photo collection. We mailed out graduation kits that included a mortarboard and a message from our Alumni Association. We created a Celebration Toolkit with suggestions for how to party at home as well as a series of social tools for the graduates and their support networks to use within their social posts. Some of these social tools are new experiences, and some closely resemble some of the iconic photo stations we traditionally have at our commencement ceremonies.

The broadcast on July 18 included speakers, photos of our graduates (e.g., how they are celebrating, who was their inspiration), a video tassel flip, and a congratulatory video from their support networks and our faculty and staff community. The goal was to provide a platform for our graduates to celebrate their accomplishments and to inspire Walden’s mission of social change. We had 1,500 graduates registered to attend.

Throughout this journey to a virtual event, we have learned a lot and had to keep the graduates and how they experience this event at the forefront. We hope to keep some special elements within the weekend as best practices as we move into future face-to-face events. I know we are doing the right thing when I read the messages on our Facebook event site. One graduate commented, “I was trying to decide whether to do the graduating thing or not back in February when I was finishing my degree. I agreed to walk the procession and go to Maryland, and then COVID-19 came around and changed my mind for me again. Thankfully, Walden stepped up and said, ‘nope we are going to give the honors you deserve’ …so here I am happy as can be.”


University of Massachusetts Medical School
Tim Rice
Director, Office of University Events

On the week of March 9, I got my first hint that something was coming. I was called into daily meetings with the Office of Student Affairs to discuss Match Day. Match Day is the annual nationwide pairing of graduating medical students with postgraduate residency training programs administered by the National Resident Matching Program. This is the day the soon-to-be MDs find out where they will be going after graduation. We had just started to hear the reports of COVID-19 and the effect it was having all over the world. As things got more serious each day, we decided it would be in the best interest of safety to hold a virtual ceremony. Little did we know that this was a taste of what would become the norm in 2020.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) comprises three separate schools: the School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and the Graduate School of Nursing. Our commencement ceremony is held on the first Sunday after Memorial Day. We have a wonderful formal ceremony under a large tent on our Campus Green. In all, 225 students were set to graduate, with 135 being awarded the degree of Medical Doctor.

As the virus spread throughout the United States, the governor of Massachusetts ordered everyone to stay home, businesses to close, and people to get ready for what would be a long stretch of quarantine. Stating that “Graduating medical students are ready: let’s get them to work,” Chancellor Michael F. Collins announced that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had approved a bold and unprecedented initiative to accelerate the graduation of UMMS’s fourth-year School of Medicine students, giving them the opportunity to begin their careers as physicians three months early and at a most critical time, when they will be able to promptly shore up hospital medical staff. “We have no doubt our medical students are up to the task,” said Collins. “In recent weeks, they have mobilized volunteer efforts to bring in donations of protective equipment from research labs, assisted medical center employee health with telephone triage of exposures, and provided other much-needed support to clinical staff on the front lines. We applaud the governor and secretary for leading this unique collaboration on behalf of the health of our Commonwealth and for allowing our medical students to do what they have trained for years to do: treat the patients for whom it will be their privilege to care.”

I was told on Friday, March 28, that the Chancellor would like to hold a virtual commencement ceremony on Thursday, March 31, at noon—four days away. My staff and the rest of the school went into overdrive. We already had the list of students who would be graduating, and the first draft of the script was written. Our Office of Communications started filming the short segments of speakers that could be recorded beforehand. Our production company, Revelation Productions, assured us they could make it happen and look professional. We were going to use a technology that was new to almost all of us—ZOOM!

We set up a conference room to mimic the stage: two podiums, royal blue backdrop, and flags. Revelation Productions set up robotic cameras so that we could maintain social distancing while filming the ceremony. The scripts were written, and the student names were double checked. The graduates wore their white coats and participated from their homes. The event went off without a hitch, and our newly confirmed MDs were able to join the fight against this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

We had two months to plan the virtual commencement ceremonies for our other two schools. These ceremonies were pre-recorded, and we were able to take the time to make them even better. My department, the Office of University Events, was able to ship each graduate their regalia and diploma in time for the virtual ceremony.

Although the pandemic has changed literally everything in higher education, it was still important for us to acknowledge the hard work of our graduating students. The Class of 2020 did not have a traditional commencement ceremony, but we were able to give them a thoughtful commemoration of their significant accomplishment.

From the Stage: A Faculty Member’s Point of View
Erin Schneiderman, MEd, CSEP
Clinical Assistant Professor |Special Event Management Program
Watts College – School of Community Resources and Development

For 11 glorious years, I had the honor of planning my college’s commencement, then convocation ceremonies. In total, I estimate that I planned just over 50. Among the numerous details I meticulously focused on season after season, the role of our faculty was important but was never the most critical priority on my to-do list.

Logistically, I sent a save the date as soon as the ceremony was confirmed. A few weeks into the semester, I sent a detailed email of information (e.g., time, location, regalia rental, parking, keynote speaker, student demographics) and expectations along with a request for a RSVP. Once I received the RSVP, I confirmed receipt by sending an appointment that a faculty member could easily reference on his or her calendar and included pertinent information such as arrival time and location. I always thought this would be helpful if a faculty member were rushing to the event and could be able to view the most important information on his or her phone. Finally, if a faculty member had a specific role, such as passing out diploma covers or presenting an award, I would follow up individually with the script with their portion highlighted.

Rarely, I would receive feedback from our faculty members, but when I did, they included comments about how close they were sitting to their neighbor or a request for a second bottle of water at their seat. Typically, feedback was minimal, but if a large issue was brought to my attention, I let the faculty member know that we would bring it up during a biannual Convocation Committee meeting that included faculty representation.

During fall 2019, my level of interest in the faculty’s role in convocation was elevated when I became one. As a newly hired clinical assistant professor at the Watts College School of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University, I was now expected to do my part during these ceremonies. Our college encourages faculty to attend as many events as possible. I can attest how important it is for graduating students to see their faculty’s presence.

Coming from my previous role, I appreciate faculty participating in events in a low-maintenance role, so that is and will always be my goal. After experiencing both a fall and spring graduation cycle, I wanted to offer some tips that may be useful to a coordinator when dealing with members of the faculty.

  • Communicate all details in every email that you send. Perhaps faculty members glance at your email but think they will take another look closer to the event. For this reason, do send information in one email after another, as they may overlook one of your emails and miss a piece of critical information.
  • Help faculty become a part of the process. Do you have a stellar keynote speaker? How many students are expected? What are some cool things students can expect at the ceremony? Faculty can excite graduating students in classes. If your college or university struggles with attendance, let the faculty help market and excite students to attend your events.
  • Communicate any changes. It seems to me that faculty are a bit routine when it comes to ceremonies. They know where to go, what to wear, if they will eat, and what time they will be finished. If anything may change from what is expected, it is a courtesy to inform them of the change in plans.
  • Feed them! Our college offers a beautiful dinner spread, dessert, and beverages. This was a welcome surprise, as I didn’t have to worry about my stomach distracting the ceremony with loud cries for nutrients.
  • Think about the platform party experience. Are there any sightline issues? Can faculty members hear or do speakers need to be adjusted? Are there bottles of water offered? Remember, faculty members must keep an engaged presence for the entire ceremony. There is no option to depart for the restrooms. In many cases, most people sitting on a dais could be on the monitors if they are located behind the lectern. I am sure we all have the story about the faculty member who nods off or is grading papers or talking to a colleague. It’s not the easiest position to be in. The platform can be warm with the combination of bright lights and heavy robes, so it’s important to offer a concerted level of service to the faculty members.

In closing, since I have been on both sides of the faculty experience, I have much appreciation for the hard work that goes into the coordination of a commencement and convocation ceremony.

NAACO, COVID-19, and You – June 2020
Amber Sega
Commencement Coordinator
Azusa Pacific University

Many of you have taken the time to complete several surveys that went out the past few weeks, and we want to thank you. Thank you for helping us all gain a bit more understanding of our positions as commencement/convocation officers, and as people too. We received responses from every region in North America.

There were so many valuable pieces of information and advice—I could write a book about it. For the purpose of this article, though, I will give you some statistics and additions to the standard options. Additionally, please click the links at the bottom of this article to be encouraged and learn even more about each other!

About Us:
Relating to Commencement/Convocation, what would you say is the most valuable lesson you have learned during our time of social distancing?
(Out of 140 responses, choosing multiple options)

  • 1 chose – I do not like my job
  • 21 chose – Isolation brings clarity
  • 38 chose – Other
  • 45 chose – I am more creative than I knew
  • 46 chose – I love my job
  • 58 chose – What is most important to me
  • 68 chose – My school really cares about their graduates

A few other interesting responses to this question were:

  • “Adversity and challenges inspire innovation.”
  • “I miss in-person collaboration!”
  • “Continued importance of student input before making decisions, understanding that the university was facing larger business operations issues and it was my role to raise the level of consideration for decisions impacting Commencement.”
  • “Our Commencement Committee needs to update their mission and responsibilities and look at a policy-making component.”
  • “Working together across units and offices, we can create a meaningful and memorable experience.”
  • “Life is far more important that the things you have collected and starting each day with an open mind, willing to embrace change.”
  • “Adapting isn’t optional. Support from the top matters!”

What has been the most stressful part of planning/changing/canceling Commencement/Convocation during this pandemic?
(Out of 140 responses, choosing multiple options)

  • 20 chose – My University/College is/has not listening(ed) to me
  • 21 chose – Personal situation
  • 24 chose – Finances
  • 38 chose – My University/College is/has not clearly communicating(ed) to me
  • 43 chose – Being creative
  • 50 chose – Isolation
  • 56 chose – Other

A few other interesting responses to this question were:

“Indecisiveness of the school’s leadership about plans and announcement to graduate community.”
“Disappointing our graduates and their families by not being able to celebrate their accomplishments as planned.”
“Constant changing landscape.”
“The unknown.”
“Working at home with kids (and family).”
“The shift from celebratory stance to absorbing anxiety and grief demanded greater energy.”
“Negative feedback from graduates and families.”

Did you feel that your institutional response to not being able to host an in-person ceremony was successful?
(Out of 127 responses, choosing multiple options)

  • 0 chose – Total failure
  • 7 chose – Not very successful
  • 15 chose – Other
  • 44 chose – Very successful
  • 64 chose – Somewhat successful

Is your University/College planning to return to campus this Fall?
(Out of 95 responses, choosing multiple options)

  • 1 chose – We are already on campus
  • 8 chose – No
  • 9 chose – Not sure
  • 15 chose – Other
  • 40 chose – Yes
  • 61 chose – Hybrid of online and in person

NAACO and You:

How has NAACO been most helpful to you during 2020?
(Out of 127 responses, choosing multiple options)

  • 5 chose – Social Media
  • 5 chose – Other
  • 17 chose – Sage Advice
  • 46 chose – Regional Support
  • 47 chose – Networking
  • 73 chose – Hot Topic Calls
  • 75 chose – Forum
  • 81 chose – Survey Spreadsheet—COVID-19 Commencement/Convocation Planning

Quotes & Encouragement, Unique Graduation Recognition Activites, and Most Significant Lessons Learned:
There were so many responses to these questions that we have decided to make these available on the NAACO website. Please click here to read these whenever you need a positive boost in your day or would like to learn even more from one another.

For full survey results, please see these additional links:


Persevering for the Class of 2020: What Have We Learned?
Grad Images

Undoubtedly, the spring 2020 commencement season stands alone as the most bizarre and memorable in modern history. GradImages united with coordinators, administrations, vendors, and, most importantly, the Class of 2020 graduates to share our heartfelt disappoint for the inevitable cancellations and postponements of what would have been another wonderful and memorable season of celebration.

Many institutions sought innovative means to celebrate their graduates, refusing to let the challenges of this pandemic dissuade them from applauding the accomplishments of their students. The varied ingenuity with which schools have sought to create alternative celebrations have been manifold—from postponing their events outright, to hosting in-person events that comply with social-distancing guidelines, to drive-through graduations and a wide array of other virtual celebrations. Along with many others, commencement coordinators have persevered and gone to great lengths to celebrate their Class of 2020 graduates in thoughtful and creative ways.

GradImages, having specialized in commencement photography for over 40 years, recognized the need to support these celebrations and subsequently produced several solutions that we made available to the commencement community. It has been our pleasure to work with many institutions throughout North America with virtual solutions, in addition to alternative in-person events. These events have continued to unfold in high volume through the month of June and into July, and many more schools expect to host postponed in-person ceremonies in August and beyond. It has been an unexpected but rewarding challenge to support our client institutions with these events, and the feedback and gratitude we have received has been incredible.

With all that said, it is imperative that we commend you, the leaders in commencement execution, for your responsiveness, your adaptation, and your commitment to your students in seeking out and executing the best possible solution for your graduates amid this unprecedented time. You have demonstrated, more than ever, that your students’ best interests are the single-most important aspect of your work. We have learned, beyond inclement weather or conflicting institutional events, that a contingency plan to an in-person ceremony is imperative, though hopefully it will not be necessary. For everything, there must be a plan.

There is, however, an inarguable takeaway from everything that has transpired in the past four months since we convened in Chicago; this pandemic has demonstrated unequivocally that the traditions and “pomp & circumstance” of an in-person commencement are, quite simply, irreplaceable. As evidenced in online petitions, public outcry, and countless surveys conducted independently by institutions, the value and fulfillment of an in-person event—including the moment of individual recognition before family and friends—is an essential capstone of the educational cycle. Now more than ever, it is demonstratively apparent that commencement ceremonies are an indispensable part of the student experience.

In closing, we thank you for your commitment to the commencement and convocation experience, for your unwavering dedication to celebrate your graduates’ accomplishments, and your insatiable desire to continue to pursue new and creative ways to applaud your newfound alumni. GradImages is proud to partner with institutions throughout North America and with NAACO to continue to pioneer the commencement experience, and we look forward to helping you to uphold your longstanding commencement traditions once (hopefully very soon) it proves safe to do so.

Stay devoted, stay inspired, and stay safe!

New Opportunities to Celebrate Student Achievement
Herff Jones

When faced with the challenges of COVID-19 and cancelled graduations, Herff Jones quickly reacted to provide our customers new opportunities to celebrate student achievement.

We created Graduation Keepsake Packages as part of a gift program that allow schools and universities the chance to recognize their graduates who have worked so hard to earn their degrees.  These packages offered several options of graduation products to choose from and were highly discounted so that we could support as many graduates as possible. For spring 2020, we sent keepsake packages to over 95,000 students with gifts ranging from cap and gowns to custom signet tassels to diploma frames. The best part was, we shipped directly to their home in a custom gift box and even inserted letters from Commencement offices and University Presidents!

Across the country, students who received these packages shared their excitement with heartwarming social media posts that not allowed others to share in their celebration, but also increased universities’ brand exposure. We are currently enhancing our gift programs in preparation for fall 2020 and spring 2021 grad seasons.

We also joined forces with two of our technology partners, StageClip and MarchingOrder, to provide a Virtual Commencement Solution unlike anything in the market. We combined their graduation technologies into a single, comprehensive offering that makes the process much easier for you and the graduates. Herff Jones made $0 on this, we just wanted to try to help bring a powerful solution to our customers during this difficult time. As we face another potentially uncertain graduation season, we are prepared to help support the cost of these virtual ceremonies to make sure every student has the opportunity to be recognized.

We would be happy to spend time walking through more of this in detail with you at your earliest convenience and certainly hope you, your families and your staff are safe and healthy.

Please reach out to

Update from Headquarters
Sara Wood, MBA, CAE

As you’ve already read, on July 1, NAACO transitioned its management company from CMA to MSP, which gives me the honor of introducing myself to you as your new Executive Director. As my team continues the transition, I wanted to take a few moments to say “hello” and let you know a little bit about me.

I have been in association management for more than 15 years, and as I begin working with an association of higher education professionals, I feel it’s only fair to share where I went to school. I have an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and an MBA from the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. As I’m beginning to learn more about NAACO, I’m already having a much greater appreciation for how much work my own university staff and faculty members at my institutions had to do for commencement. I feel like a few thank you letters may be in order. 

On the personal side, I am originally from the greater Philadelphia area, but I now call the D.C. metro area home. When I discussed what I should write in this column with the Board, they asked that I share a few things about me that are not work-related, so here are three: 1) I have a cat named Buckey, 2) I am trained in classical opera, and 3) I sing competitive barbershop music in my spare time. If there are any other musicians here in the group, be sure to come and find me at a future event when we can all meet in person again! 

Lastly, I would like to give a heartfelt thank you to Michael Canino, your outgoing Executive Director. He has been a joy to work with during this transition, and I wish him well on all his future endeavors. 

To everyone with whom I have already had the opportunity to work, thank you so much for being so welcoming to both me and my team. We have hit the proverbial ground running, and we look forward to helping all members continue to thrive. We can’t wait to see what we can all accomplish together! 



Sara L. Wood, MBA, CAE
Executive Director, NAACO

Welcome New Members
We are pleased to welcome the following new members to the NAACO community:

  • Cal Poly Pomona
  • Central Lakes College
  • Fordham University

Questions? Please contact NAACO Headquarters at or by calling (877) 622-2606.

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