Convocation 2009 – Behind the Scenes

This is the third of a special three-part Voice report on Athabasca University’s 2009 Convocation, which took place June 11, 12, and 13. The Voice offers its warmest congratulations to all this year’s graduates!

For most people, the experience of AU’s convocation ceremony is seen from one of two perspectives: either from the stage, waiting with excitement (and nervousness) for their name to be called; or from the audience, watching with pride as that special grad crosses the platform.

But there’s another vantage point to catch all the action from. It’s the one behind the scenes, and That’s where AU’s Mel MacGregor took The Voice for this special peek at just what it takes to pull everything together.

As Events Co-ordinator, Mel has pushed more than one pedometer beyond the breaking point during the three days of convocation?but she says the work starts long before that.

?We start planning a year in advance,? Mel explains. ?This year for example, once we knew we were moving the event to the multiplex, we had to rejig convocation to determine what would work best where and how the event would flow from one area of the building to the other. We revised the floor plan a few times based on comments from the venue operators, what the President requested, and from what we thought students would be thinking and seeing when they arrived. We also like to book the musical entertainment as soon as possible so we can get the top-notch acts that we really enjoy.?

Switching the venue from the large tent to the multiplex may have brought challenges, but it also offered plenty of fun new options.

?The AV aspect of Convocation 2009 was probably my favourite part,? says Mel. Along with the two large screens that flanked the stage, Mel and her team were able to incorporate a 7.5 x 10-foot screen suspended from the ceiling and facing the stage ?so the students could watch what was going on.?

Another interesting addition was the gobo, which Mel explains is ?a flat metal disc that you place in front of a light, and then light shines through the areas that are cut out of the metal?in this case, the AU logo?projecting the image onto a backdrop.? The AU logo, projected onto the white Lycra circle hanging centre stage, created a striking backdrop for the grads.

Venue details are just the beginning, though, for Mel and Events Assistant Corina Hetze, who have been part of the convocation team for the past three years. As AU grows, so does the event. ?In 2004 Convocation was two days,? Mel says, ?divided into undergrad and grad, but when those ceremonies got too large they were split into the three ceremonies as we know them now? (a big difference from the first convocation, with a total of two grads).

This year, AU welcomed around 600 people each day for the Thursday and Saturday ceremonies.

But ?the Friday ceremony has a greater number of grads and therefore a greater number of guests,? Mel adds, so the team plans for over 800. ?This year we accommodated approximately 1,000 people on Friday, which would be very squishy if we were still using the tent,? she says. ?The tent could hold close to 200 people on stage and 600 on the floor. The multiplex has a lot more room to manoeuvre!?

When asked about the number of people it takes to plan such a large event, Mel summed it up in one word. ?Lots!?

For all you list-lovers, here’s the breakdown: 3 Events Office staff; 3 photographers; 4 florists; 12 Athabasca Regional Multiplex staff; 18 employees from the rental company; 17 Facilities and Services Staff; 25 audiovisual, lights, sound, and webcast crew; 45 catering-team members; 50 individuals from community groups (the groups that clear tables after breakfast and lunch); 59 musicians; and 130 additional AU staff.

That makes for a grand total of 366. ?Plus,? adds Mel, ?the business people in the community who help in the background and no doubt there are more that I missed.?

Along with the obvious things like arranging seating, invitations, meals, and parking, all those hands are kept busy with details like ?wrapping 5,140 sets of cutlery so that everyone can eat [and] coordinating the arrival and departure of 37 boxes of gowns and hoods for the three days,? Mel explains.

As Mel knows, the unexpected often happens, and inclement weather has played a big role in the plans.

?Last year we added extra tenting to cover the procession from the library to the red carpet in case it rained,? she says. ?This year, we were well protected from the elements inside the multiplex. It could have rained, snowed, sleeted or overheated outside and we would have been fine inside.?

All this activity takes place before the first guest has even arrived, but grads and their families are definitely front and centre when it comes to convocation plans. In fact, getting to know the stories behind the names is one of the most exciting aspects for Mel, as she explains the locations some grads travel from.

?The grads who travelled the farthest this year came from Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Tanzania, Africa. We also had five grads from the USA attend in addition to all the provinces and territories in Canada.?

Once they arrive, It’s clear that their stories are as diverse as their locales.

?Thursday was a really unique day,? Mel says. ?Usually we have the tallest grads on Saturday (6? to 7?), but this year the tallest grad came on Thursday. What made it even more fun was that the smallest grad came on Thursday too! We ordered a kindergarten size gown for her (4? 5?) and a super tall gown for him (6? 6?).

?Thursday also featured a set of twin sisters,? adds Mel, ?Ana and Adela, graduating on the same day with the same degree. How fun is that? And to make things more exciting, we had a mother-daughter team convocate,? though with different degrees on different days.

Still another inspiring grad story took place on Thursday as the oldest grad received her degree. ?She is in her seventies,? Mel explains, ?and wasn’t going to come to grad because her daughter was getting married three days later. When her daughter heard this, the daughter said that graduations were very important and weren’t something to be missed.? So the graduand and her daughter ?got on a plane, came to graduation, and then returned home to Ontario for a wedding. Neat!?

The energy of each day’s ceremony is different too. ?It’s interesting to watch and listen to the personalities of the groups each day,? says Mel. ?Thursday is the Arts day so the crowd is fairly easygoing. Friday is the Science day and the nurses are chatty and lively . . . Saturday is the business day and It’s usually a very precise, perfunctory, no-nonsense kind of energy that permeates the crowd.?

With so many different facets to planning convocation it might be hard to choose a favourite?but Mel’s got that figured out too.

?I like all the action on the days of convocation. I take great delight in making convocation an amazing, unbelievable, phenomenal success for students. AU’s convocation is unlike any other convocation out there and until you’ve experienced it firsthand, It’s hard to understand the magic and intimacy of the event.

?And then the coordinator part of me gets quite excited when I put together a nine-page production schedule that outlines who does what, where and when, and everything goes according to plan, with some extra excitement thrown in to keep us hopping. It’s all good,? she adds with a smile.

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