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All hands on deck: Behind-the-scenes of MSU commencement

April 28, 2023
James Madison Dean Cameron Thies speaks at commencement. James Madison College held their commencement at the Wharton Center on May 7, 2022.
James Madison Dean Cameron Thies speaks at commencement. James Madison College held their commencement at the Wharton Center on May 7, 2022.

Before Michigan State University graduates can cross the stage and collect their diplomas, offices across the university spend a year preparing and organizing spring commencements. From printing programs to securing speakers to live streaming internationally, it’s all hands on deck for graduation.

During commencement weekend, Senior University Academic Events Planner Heather Fink is the first to arrive at 6 a.m. and the last to leave around 7:30 p.m., making sure everything she has organized over the past year runs smoothly. 

Throughout the year, Fink is in charge of contract negotiations and planning commencements at the university level, as well as coordinating the master’s and doctoral convocations. 

With only Fink and her colleague, Ashley Day, running the commencement office and 21 total ceremonies, colleges coordinate their own ceremonies, Fink said.

“For example, say the College of Business is at the Breslin Center,” Fink said. “The College of Business is responsible for communicating with the Breslin Center saying, ‘This is how we're going to do our name cards.’”

This extends down to even how many chairs on stage, Fink said.

Fink’s office also handles fall commencement entirely on its own. She said the really hard work starts around January, when she takes on planning several large events at the same time.

“The two months prior to spring, we're really in the trenches,” Fink said. 

Not only is the office in charge of the commencement, but many other events as well, like the university student recognition event where various scholarship and fellowship winners are recognized. 

On the day of graduation, Fink is on the ground ensuring that seats and signage are correctly set up and speakers are in the right place at the right time, communicating with the MSU Department of Police and Public Safety and providing scripts to teleprompter captioners.

With many moving parts, Fink said she relies on several university partners to get everything done. WKAR, MSU’s public radio station, is an essential player in making graduation accessible for every student’s family, she said.

WKAR  live streams all graduation ceremonies, making them available internationally. The recordings are also saved and posted to the WKAR website for later viewing. .

“It may seem just like a nice add on, but, for some of our students whose families can't make it back to the U.S. to watch their student graduate or just simply can't make the travel within the country, this is an essential way for them to be part of that celebration in a way that’s engaging and meaningful,” MSU deputy spokesperson Dan Olsen said. 

In order to livestream internationally, the station has to use a specific platform called Kaltura, WKAR senior director of television and digital operations Brant Wells said. Kaltura, unlike platforms like YouTube or Vimeo which may be blocked by Virtual Private Networks, is accessible anywhere in the world, he said.

While the Breslin Center handles its own filming and production, livestreaming in the Wharton Center is done almost exclusively by MSU students who work as production interns at WKAR, Wells said. 

“They're working cameras, making sure that actually we're connected into the audio, working with the Wharton,” Wells said. “They're working with the WKAR production staff as well, but most of the time, I mean in terms of the recording of the commencement, it's all actually student labor.” 

Another essential partner is the MSU DPPS, Fink said. MSU DPPS communications manager Dana Whyte said the department’s special events division works directly with the Breslin and Wharton centers to determine a safety and security plan throughout commencements.

Because of the influx of people on campus during graduation, Whyte said MSU DPPS is diligently looking for anything that looks out of place.

“There are a number of prohibited items that aren't allowed inside of the Breslin and the Wharton Center,” Whyte said. “So being on the lookout for those as people come in and making sure that they do not bring them into those buildings, and just being that visual presence and available if anyone were to need us.” 

While the ceremonies themselves are stressful to navigate as it’s impossible to plan for everything, Fink said she is satisfied by the joy she is able to provide to graduates and their families.

“It's a happy day, it’s the culmination of all the hard work everybody's put in,” Fink said. “From the bachelor's degree all the way up to people receiving their Ph.D.s. These people have put in a lot of time and a lot of money, so we want to make sure their day goes off well and that everybody's happy, even the families.” 


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