Campus News

Behind the scenes at commencement

Doug Borsuk reviews with a co-worker the same-day to-do list ahead of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences’ commencement ceremony on April 30.

Doug Borsuk, logistics manager with Event Planning and Services, reviews with a co-worker the same-day to-do list ahead of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences’ commencement ceremony on April 30. Photos and essay: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

By MEREDITH FORREST KULWICKI

Published May 14, 2021

UB resumed in-person commencement this spring, with limited capacity, and is holding ceremonies at two outdoor venues: UB Stadium and a tent set up in the Furnas lot. That, of course, has posed some unique challenges for the team in the Office of Special Events, along with other UB employees who work to make commencement a truly special event.

Behind all the pomp and circumstance, UB employees are working nonstop to ensure that each commencement ceremony goes off without a hitch, so that graduates can focus on what matters most: reveling in their achievement and sharing the moment with those closest to them.

UB’s last outdoor general commencement ceremony took place in 1972, at Rotary Field on the South Campus. In the years since, several schools have held outdoor commencements, with the School of Architecture and Planning the last, in 2009.

Preparing the campus for the 17 in-person ceremonies was no small feat. Countless people have contributed from the planning through to execution, attending to the details attendees will appreciate immensely.

It is impossible to document all those efforts, but with this photo essay, University Communications photographer Meredith Forrest Kulwicki aims to highlight some of the behind-the-scenes work that took place this spring.

Ready for the ‘what if’

Regina Ticco helped SEAS Dean Kemper Lewis don his regalia before recording his commencement message from the Davis Hall atrium on April 16. Paul Calandra (left) prepared to run the teleprompter.

Regina Ticco, producer with CFA Production Group, has been keeping an eye on the details at each of the virtual commencement ceremonies her group has produced video packages for this spring as a ‘just-in-case’ measure.

By mid-April, the team recorded more than 50 speakers, from President Satish K. Tripathi to alumni speakers, at locations on all three of UB’s campuses. In total, the group spent over 500 hours videotaping, producing and editing these ceremonies.

“While we know most of these recordings will never be used, we understand the value of ensuring this important university event happens in some format, during this very uncertain year,” Ticco said.

Meanwhile, Dave Jordan, Paul Calandra and Sean Krueger from the CFA Production Group are also working closely on the details of the in-person events, thinking through lighting on the stages and the effects of wind on sound quality, for example.  

“It was a challenge to work on both the live, in-person ceremony and the virtual ceremony at the same time,” said Calandra, director of photography. “Particularly hoping and knowing that the virtual ceremony would not be used.”

Collage of photos showing Barnard Onyenucheya, a doctoral candidate in the department of electrical engineering, in the David Hall Atrium on April 16, 2021.
Regina Ticco offers some advice to a speaker from the sound booth in the Screen Room in the Center for the Arts on April 20.
Dan Sperrazza, an alumnus and guest speaker for the Honors College ceremony, removes his mask as he prepares to record his remarks in the Screen Room on April 20.

Planning early, and often

Anne Mecca (center) demonstrates how to position a graduation hood on student Cassondra Lyman.

More than 1,300 students this year have registered to take part — both in person and virtually — in the College of Arts and Sciences’ undergraduate commencements, traditionally the largest of the UB’s ceremonies, happening on Sunday. For reference, approximately 1,500 students participated in the two ceremonies in 2019.

“It’s all [the students] want, to spend quality time with their peers to celebrate, even with this outside, masked atmosphere,” said Anne Mecca, assistant director for strategic programs for CAS.

Discussions around commencement started in December 2020, says Mecca, but they were working with a lot of unknowns until mid-March when President Satish K. Tripathi announced plans for in-person, outdoor ceremonies.

“It was really tough because guidelines kept changing,” said Mecca. “I’m excited we are able to do it in person.”

The stadium venue presents more logistical challenges than Alumni Arena, with the weather being a huge wild card, say Mecca, who is ignoring weather reports until just a few days before the ceremony. Mecca says CAS ordered six cases (or 1,500) ponchos, just in case.  

While the stadium doesn’t accommodate for some of Mecca’s favorite elements of the ceremony — the dimmed lights and balloon drops — she looks forward to helping students celebrate their hard work and graduation.

“When the students process in and are looking for their parents, it’s such a wonderful moment,” said Mecca. “It makes me teary-eyed.”

A snowy tour in April of UB Stadium for the teams of coordinators from CAS, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the School of Management.
Doug Borsuk, logistics manager with Event Planning and Services, leads the walk-through.
Christine Human, SEAS associate dean for accreditation and student affairs, and director of undergraduate studies, in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, speaks with Doug Borsuk about the details of how student will move through the stadium.
Lei Zhu of the School of Management, takes photos on her phone for reference while on the stadium tour.
Christine Human (left) and Julie LoTempio, associate director of student services in the School of Management, consult with Doug Borsuk (right) over a printed layout plan.
Anne Mecca watches from the box the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences’ commencement on April 30, looking for details, such as how the rows of students are dismissed.

Preparing the spaces

Power washing at the UB Stadium in preparation for the commencement ceremonies.

Commencement ceremonies are held in two locations on the North Campus.

The first is UB Stadium, which will hold 1,500 guests. A 25,000-square-foot tent was also installed in the Furnas lot, which can accommodate 500 graduates and guests.

Coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenge of setting up the commencement venues took several weeks and lots of people to accomplish.

Tent erected in the Jarvis lot.
Stickers on the seats in the UB Stadium help ensure proper social distancing.
The UB Stadium field is ready for commencement ceremonies.

Pomp and circumstance

Doug Borsuk steams banners in a locker room of UB Stadium for several of the school commencement ceremonies.

Doug Borsuk, logistics manager with Event Planning and Services, has been helping with events at UB for nearly 20 years. He started working with Athletics, and now does everything from press events to distinguished speakers. But commencement, he says, is the “pinnacle of my year.”

“It has everything an event could offer,” Borsuk said. “All the challenges and all the rewards you could want.”

Borsuk works closely will all the school coordinators to help each execute their own special details, from the School of Dental Medicine having graduate names taped to their chairs, to discussions over pyrotechnics for the College of Arts and Sciences.

It makes for long days, with lots of moving parts and issues to solve, but Borsuk said he enjoys the environment and how events bring people together.

“There is so much team work, that’s what I love the most.”

A team member of the Event Planning and Services wipes down a microphone at the podium during the JSMBS Commencement.
 The school Mace is secured behind stage during the JSMBS Commencement due to wind.
Two University Police officers pick up the University Mace from University Archives ahead of Commencement Weekend. The Mace is used at seven of the Commencements through the weekend.

Student experience

Raven Parks (right), psychology, minor in counseling, checks her reflection in the window of a Jeep in the parking lot, with Taya Brown, psychology (left).

Commencement is all about the students, and this year graduates and their loved ones were thrilled to be able to celebrate in person. To help graduates prepare, Student Engagement held a “Trick Your Tassel” event, along with opportunities for soon-to-be graduates to have their photo taken with UB mascot Victor E. Bull.

Tim Belzile (right), a special events staff member, checks the vaccine card of a graduate attending the Jacobs School commencement. Students and guests had to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or vaccination.
Armand, 3, splashes in a puddle on the concourse of UB Stadium while his mother participates in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences commencement on April 30.
The wind was fierce during the Jacobs School commencement, leaving many graduates hanging onto their hats.
Media Study student Ishween Jolly attends the Trick Your Tassel event hosted by Student Engagement.
 Student Engagement hosted several opportunities for students to have a photo taken with UB mascot Victor E. Bull in the Student Union.
Paulette Basque, civil engineering, puts on her Kente Stole, an African tradition signifying a special celebration at the start of the ALANA celebration.