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Let the graduation festivities begin — all 22 of them

William Regan and Sonia Marinaccio in the Center for the Arts Mainstage, one of the venues, along with Alumni Arena, for UB's commencement ceremonies. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published April 28, 2017

“You’re not going to find another activity where so much energy and grit is invested to make something happen as commencement.”
William Regan, director
Office of University Events

Sit down with the two people most responsible for organizing, coordinating and pulling off the vast UB commencement schedule. Certain key phrases — like “logistics management and planning,” “on-site management,” “programming guidelines” and “disseminating a schedule” — keep coming up.

Don’t be fooled. William J. Regan, director of UB’s Office of University Events, and Sonia D. Marinaccio, assistant director, talk the same institutional administrative language when explaining in great detail how they are managing the juggling act and diplomatic role-playing required to schedule and support the 18 commencement ceremonies and four university-wide recognition ceremonies that will unfold from April 28 to May 24. These include UB’s biggest event of the year, the now-dual College of Arts and Sciences undergraduate ceremonies on May 21 in Alumni Arena.

To hear Regan and Marinaccio talk, it’s all business as usual. Just a matter of carrying out those administrative functions. “Infrastructure support.” “University hierarchy.” “Procedures, policies and protocol,” to quote Marinaccio’s official memo that goes to the commencement coordinators in the individual units.

“If there’s a plus, we’re not reinventing the wheel for a lot of this,” says Regan, who will oversee his 29th UB commencement schedule this spring. “I don’t exactly want to call it an owner’s manual. But there is the fact you’ve done this for many years in a row, so you keep doing what’s worked for you in the past and you look for improvement in areas you can identify.”

“It’s a yearlong effort,” adds Marinaccio, who has been working in University Events since 2004 and involved with commencement since 2008. “A lot of people think this is something we do just in the spring. There is yearlong preparation that goes into it,” she says. “It does help we’ve been doing this for so many years. We have a lot of experiences and lessons learned to look back on and reference.”

And Regan and Marinaccio are the first to tell you not to ascribe too much responsibility to their office. They “lead the charge,” as Regan says, providing infrastructure support to the administration and the individual schools so they can plan and take care of as many details as possible. And certainly, they both stress, their efforts are more than matched by staff in the offices of the deans, as well as the President and the Provost.

But just beneath all the conversation of “challenges” and “coordination of schedules” and “partner relationships” with the individual schools responsible for their graduation ceremonies, a behind-the-scenes picture of their ongoing and — to say the least — extensive responsibilities becomes more clear.

There’s a lot at stake — for students, parents and the UB community. A successful, inviting commencement makes the difference between giving thousands of graduates and those close to them a memorable and feel-good sendoff from their university, and an alternative Regan and Marinaccio do not tolerate.

William Regan (black robe) keeps a watchful eye as students are congratulated by President Satish K. Tripathi during a commencement ceremony for undergraduates in the College of Arts and Sciences. Photo: Douglas Levere

“Once the groundwork for commencement is laid, the task of producing and managing the 22 ceremonies becomes a huge shared experience among the schools, the administration and our service units,” Regan says. “Without so many hands lifting together, this time-honored celebration and rite of passage would never get off the ground. While we have the distinction of getting things started, it is an incredibly broad, university-wide team that carries commencement across the finish line.”

And not to mention this: Both Regan and Marinaccio have accumulated stories and offbeat circumstances from the hundreds of UB commencement ceremonies they’ve worked on over the years. Patience. They’ll share, eventually.

First, consider the professional partnership between Regan and Marinaccio. As director, Regan says his strength is to see the “big picture, big picture.” He is the one whose responsibility is to determine how best to plan for these events, what problems may arise and think quickly when something goes awry.

Marinaccio is a classic detail person. Her checklists are legendary. These checklists take the form of her “production information and recommendations” sent to commencement coordinators of individual schools on the precise protocol for printed programs and ceremony production, to cite two of many examples. And that checklist mentality manifests in her individual to-do lists, including that cherished notepad that sits on her nightstand the week of commencement. She keeps it within easy reach in case she wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks of something she overlooked.

“I have the title director,” Regan says. “But in terms of the day-in-and-day-out slogging, Sonia is really on top of the details.

“Sonia is very organized, meticulously organized,” he explains. “That is an essential part of her job description. I am not by nature a checklist person. I would not be a good person doing her job. My resource to Sonia is more around brainstorming ideas. Looking at different ways of doing things, finding solutions to problems that come up. My role is to fully support Sonia as much as I can to make her successful. And if I can make her successful, than I will be successful.”

“I’m very detail-oriented,” Marinaccio agrees. “There is a lot of ripple effect. So when someone asks, ‘Can we change this one little thing?’ you would be surprised at how many different effects it has.”

“So she’s looking at the trees, and I’m looking at the forest,” Regan says. “That doesn’t mean she can’t see the forest, and it doesn’t mean I can’t see the trees.”

President Satish K. Tripathi greets students in the "robing room" — aka the triple gym — before the start of commencement. Photo: Douglas Levere

Preparations continue throughout the year. Each school holding a commencement ceremony gets “event production” guidelines from Marinaccio. The documents cover everything from staging; to online viewing of ceremonies; to how to introduce distinguished guests on the ceremony platform (a directory is sufficient for entire platform party; however, be sure and introduce all SUNY trustees, University Council members and special VIPs); to instructions on performing the national anthem and alma mater (both the national anthem and alma mater must be included; the national anthem sung shortly after the opening declaration and the alma mater toward the end of the ceremony but before the closing declaration. Alma mater lyrics must appear in the printed program); to when and how to move tassels (“You may now move your tassels from the right to the left,” the degree conferrer must say.).

If the ceremony needs catering, who best in Campus Dining and Shops to contact to make arrangements? When does the printed program need to be in production? When are certain rehearsals? Where?

The Office of University Events also manages the official UB commencement website, where students can get answers to questions via posted FAQs.

Marinaccio’s primary responsibility in the spring semester is to be sure all these “component pieces” get done. Part of her role is to be supportive and collegial, to encourage and persuade the individual schools how best to complete their tasks.

And when commencement week arrives, “it’s a proud week for everyone involved,” says Regan.

College of Arts and Sciences students take a photo in the robing room before marching into the main gym of Alumni Arena for the commencement ceremony. Photo: Douglas Levere

“It’s an exciting time,” he says. “I think everyone is naturally excited. It’s a pinnacle event. It’s a consummate effort put forward not just by the schools hosting the ceremonies, but by the service side of the university as well. Everyone from University Facilities, University Police, Parking and Transportation, our Center for the Arts and Athletics staffs, and Campus Dining and Shops are putting out maximum efforts.

“You’re not going to find another activity where so much energy and grit is invested to make something happen as commencement,” he says. “So I’m kind of riding the wave at that point.

“You see this effort being put forward, and you know a lot of families and graduates who are going to be happy.”

Marinaccio also lauds the great spirit of teamwork among all the service providers.

“We show up on Saturday to help set up for the College of Arts and Sciences undergraduate ceremony,” she says. “And the facilities people are there. Like everyone else, they’ve been working like crazy every day at Alumni Arena. And we come in, and they’re in the best of spirits and making us laugh and being so helpful.”

Now, about those stories. Both Regan and Marinaccio are cautious about divulging too much, concerned they will offend the people who work so hard to pull these ceremonies together or the graduates who have worked so hard to get there.

But it’s clear the years have brought some adventures.

Timelapse animation of the commencement floor

Students march into the main gym of Alumni Arena for the commencement ceremony for undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences. Photo: Douglas Levere

One of Regan’s biggest responsibilities on the day of the College of Arts and Sciences commencement is to oversee the procession of students, faculty, administrators and distinguished guests. The procession goes from the Triple Gym in the basement of Alumni Arena to the main gym, where the ceremony takes place. Before the CAS undergraduate ceremony was split this year to accommodate more guests and students, there were as many as 1,400 students in Alumni Arena, all arranged by as many as 30 departments and programs.

All students sitting with their departments are arranged alphabetically. So conducting that procession requires a precise order, Regan says.

“Once they get into the arena to take their seats, they have to follow a very precise pattern of seating, so when it’s time to call them up to be introduced and get their diplomas, we don’t have an issue of a department getting flipped or have students out of order.

“As complicated as it sounds, it comes down to one or two key fundamentals,” he says. “My job is to help instruct our faculty volunteers as to what they need to do at all costs to get the students moving down the right row of chairs so they are where we want them when it’s time to introduce them.

“That’s my crucible moment for commencement,” he says. “Just get the students seated where they need to be.”

Yes, there have been times when students have started down the wrong rows, “which would just screw us up,” he says. “It’s really not anyone’s fault. But the consequences of this honest mistake would induce commencement chaos.

“I literally jump into the procession to stop students from going down the wrong row, turn them around and move them in the right direction,” Regan says. “If it doesn’t go right at the start, it won’t go right at all. So it’s being there, Johnny-on-the-spot, at the critical moment.”

Now it’s Marinaccio’s turn. Regan suggests her stories are in the “good news/bad news” category. Someone’s brother wants to walk in the procession because the graduate can’t. Or a mom wants to accept the degree for her daughter. Graduation acceptance by proxy. It seems like a good idea to the family at the time.

After some coaxing, Marinaccio shares some of what she obviously is thinking.

“They would be in the category of outrageous requests of expectations,” she says.

“For example, a graduate who comes to the ceremony without pre-registering arrives 10 minutes after the procession has left the robing area and announces that they want more tickets than anyone else was able to get.”

“Or they show up and don’t have a cap and gown,” Regan adds. “Or we had a student who was introduced and when he got to the president, he peeled off his cap and gown and gave them to the president. What was that?

“We also get a lot of calls leading up to commencement from parents who are calling on behalf of their sons and daughters in order to be able to tell them, in turn, what they need to do to graduate,” he says. “Or sons and daughters not telling Mom and Dad what they need to know in order to attend their ceremonies, so they call us.

“Some parents can’t even tell us what their kid’s major is.”

But the all-time favorite “not-prepared” story goes to Marinaccio, and it goes against the grain of the consummate detail person.

“Or a student award recipient who came late,” Marinaccio says. “And his mother brought his pants.

“‘Will you give these to my son?’ his mother asked us.”

READER COMMENT

Well-done! For many years. Thanks

 

Robert Baier