MSU commencement, behind the scenes

As the end of April ushers in finals, spring weather and summer plans, for many it means one thing — graduation. On May 3, 2014, approximately 2,000 students will ascend the main stage of the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse and receive a diploma to be recognized for their culmination of time, efforts and talents spent at MSU. However, a lot of planning and preparation goes into the implementation of this celebration, which according to the Office of the Registrar, will be MSU’s largest commencement to date.

Melanie Stocks, director of MSU Sports Facilities, noted that the planning for commencement starts “almost the day after the last commencement ceremony to review what went great and what needs to be changed up.” MSU Sports Facilities works closely with the registrar’s office throughout the year meeting upwards of six to seven more times as graduation nears.

Sports facilities plans all of the logistics of commencement, and the registrar’s office is in charge of making sure each student is eligible to graduate, in addition to delivering all 2,000 plus diplomas to the fieldhouse prior to the ceremony. Registrar Bonnie Ashley noted that “students pay a $30 application fee that covers the costs of producing the diplomas.” While students do receive a degree when they walk across the stage, they are actually handed a “diploma cover with materials inside about alumni and a brief congratulations,” said Ashley. Students receive their actual diploma in the mail at the end of June.

According to the registrar’s office, as long as a student is in good standing and has no holds on his or her account, he or she is eligible to graduate. Once a student is eligible to graduate their academic adviser sends their information to the Office of the Registrar which processes the details and then sends out the list of names to receive diplomas. Before the student receives their diploma, a person in the registrar’s office must proof every diploma and check for any errors.

On the logistics side of commencement, the actual setup of the the Fieldhouse, with more than 2,000 chairs, 16,671 sq. feet of carpet and 3,000 balloons, begins a week prior to the ceremony. Chris Hayden, the director of operations at MSU Sports Facilities stated that they have about “40-50 setup and operations staff” who perform all logistic operations. This includes the setup of sound and lighting and the construction of two large stages for the students to walk across. Furthermore, the band, carpet, chairs, backdrop hanging, screens and projectors will be setup and the large M will be suspended in front of the backdrop. Hayden said that “all of this is done within three days by the staff.”

Stocks and Hayden said to keep in mind that “the spring is our busiest time at the Fieldhouse and while commencement is our biggest event that is held, this also means the Fieldhouse has to be thoroughly cleaned before the setup of commencement can properly begin.”

Once all of this is completed, a hired sound company and PBS Productions will set up their video and sound equipment, spending half of the day before the ceremony rehearsing and assisting in any other setup.

Stocks noted that one of the larger components of the commencement program itself is the balloon drop at the end. She noted that they “hire a few people to blow up more than 3,000 balloons” and then the MSU Sports Facilities suspends the balloons in bird netting to then drop them using fishing line at the end of the ceremony. This happens twice as two ceremonies take place during the day.

For the lineup of each ceremony itself, the registrar’s office has staff to direct students to the correct areas during the ceremony and is responsible for all signage and banners used to walk the students by college into the ceremony. The MSU Sports Facilities has 28 staff members that solely greet guests and direct them to their seats. Stocks and Ashley noted that they are expecting between 8,000-10,000 people to attend both ceremonies on May 3.

MSU Parking Services also plays an important role in graduation helping to direct the influx of traffic and parking. Additionally, they provide a shuttle service for those who have no transportation to the graduation ceremony if they’ve traveled via plane, for example. University Police also increases their security forces and work closely with parking services to ensure a safe commencement.

Hayden and Stocks both agreed that every year there are new challenges that present themselves in planning the commencement, but both find working behind the scenes to be extremely rewarding. “It’s very exciting to see all those students graduate and to see them walk across the stage and know that they get to move onto another stage of their life,” Stocks said.

As for Ashley, she stated that “there are always things that come up in the planning of commencement and we always make sure to have a back-up for even our back-up plans,” but “it is an event that brings every aspect of our campus together … and it is something. This isn’t like a high school graduation; this is an event, and it really is one of the larger events in the whole state of Montana.”
Not able to attend commencement but hoping to see it? Be sure to watch a live stream of the ceremony on