Back in early March, while University of Nebraska–Lincoln faculty and students made an unprecedented transition to remote learning, another group on campus began a similar herculean task.
As social distancing became the new normal, traditional spring ceremonies were off the table, but Vanessa Gorman, chair of the university’s commencement and recognition committee, said the group hardily took on a new, important mission: to make the May 9 graduation day special and memorable for each of the nearly 3,500 graduates, despite the circumstances.
“Based on the tradition of commencement at our university, and the welcoming, nurturing environment we have, we wanted to do something special for the day, even though we weren’t sure what that would look like,” Gorman, professor and undergraduate chair in history, said. “And we had an incredibly dedicated, hard-working group of people who were committed to making this day a happy one for everybody.”
The group began brainstorming, and it became a campus-wide effort. From a gift box and subsequent diploma mailing to each graduate, a ceremony filmed for TV and the web, and individual recognitions on social media, the new graduation plan required teamwork from many units and colleagues, now scattered in home offices across Lincoln.
The commencement and recognition committee appointed three subcommittees led by the Special Events Team with University Communication: The Go Big Grad celebration box, Go Big Grad video celebration and the Go Big Grad personal slides.
The biggest challenge for the groups was the timeframe, said Annette Wetzel, executive director for special events in the Office of the Chancellor.
“It was a very intense period of planning by the team that is traditionally involved in commencement,” Wetzel said. “We reimagined 150 years of commencement tradition in about three weeks. We had to reimagine the entire traditional commencement experience into a digital celebration for students and their families. Our goal was that it had to still be memorable, celebratory and meaningful.”
A cap and tassel for all
One of the first ideas that was agreed upon was getting a cap and tassel into each graduate’s hand prior to May 9, Gorman said.
“We wanted to make it really special for them and the chancellor agreed, to get the cap and tassel for every graduate,” she said. “People came up with other items to include and then alumni became involved, so it became something that would let every graduate know this is a really special day and that we were proud of them.”
The building and mailing of around 3,500 gift boxes to graduates was a major undertaking. The committee immediately had a hurdle of compiling current addresses for the grads, many of whom had relocated when the university went to a remote learning model, and vendors who had shut down their factories due to COVID-19. Wetzel said the vendors stepped up in a big way to deliver the caps and tassels for the mailing.
By April 10, the Office of the University Registrar had updated the MyRed graduation checklist to include a diploma distribution form, and communicated these new requirements to students. Still, there were some who missed the April 24 deadline. Not wanting any student left out, Gail Meyer, associate registrar, called each student who hadn’t filled out the form.
“The mailing of the boxes and diplomas was really important to us, so I spent that Saturday calling 100 to 150 students, asking them to fill it out, because we need those addresses,” Meyer said. “It was really great talking to those students. They were so appreciative.”
The Office of Global Strategies also stepped in to help compile addresses for international students who were graduating. Afterward, Brad Woodruff, degree audit systems specialist, built the mailing lists for each level of graduate, so that every person would receive the right cap and tassel.
“The Office of the University Registrar is key to any commencement and that group of dedicated staff worked tirelessly on getting the right student data gathered for the box and diploma mailing,” Wetzel said.
University Print and Mail Services put the boxes together and mailed them, which required all hands on deck in the unit.
“Being able to do something special and get it to them on time is something that we were excited to be a part of,” Mike Chaplin, assistant director of printing services, said.
Celebrating in a digital sphere
Meanwhile, the university’s social media team, which is involved in the planning and execution of commencement ceremonies, was working behind the scenes to further highlight the graduates and build a meaningful online community.
“Commencement is a great time to promote the Go Big Grad hashtag and look for fun and creative ways to engage our audiences,” Katie Black, digital content specialist, said. “We had the opportunity to do more this year to personalize the connection.”
New this year, the team created custom Instagram story graphics, custom signs graduates could print at home and share on social, as well as a Don’t Rush challenge video featuring May graduates with their Go Big Grad boxes. They also created downloadable graphics, tips on how to decorate a mortar board and take virtual campus photos, Instagram and Snapchat digital stickers, shareable Instagram Stories templates and a #GoBigGrad Spotify playlist for graduates, alumni and their families to share their graduation experience online.
The commencement website was overhauled to further develop the sense of community, with social media posts curated in real time from graduates, as well as congratulatory messages from faculty and alumni. The team collected hundreds of stories from graduates who shared what graduating meant to them and highlights from their time as a Husker.
“Every graduate has a unique experience as a Husker, and we are always looking for ways to share these experiences and honor our graduates,” Taylor DeMaro, digital community specialist, said.
A televised event
David Fitzgibbon, director of video services in University Communication, is well-versed in putting celebratory films together — but a televised, pre-recorded commencement ceremony was a first for him.
“It was a big task to take, essentially what is the three-hour ceremony in Pinnacle Bank Arena, and condense it down to make something in 27 minutes that is meaningful,” Fitzgibbon said. “We knew we couldn’t duplicate an actual ceremony, but we wanted it to be a celebration and include the conferral of degrees.”
Fitzgibbon and Curtis Bright, broadcast specialist, spent three weeks filming more than 30 videos with Chancellor Ronnie Green, the deans of each college and other university leaders, the commencement address with John Cook, head coach of Husker volleyball, and then putting it all together with messages from notable alumni, which were requested and gathered by the Office of the Chancellor.
“In the 30-minute show, we were able to have representation from 39 different Nebraska notables, and some of their messages are longer,” Fitzgibbon said. “We put those additional messages, repackaged, on the website that graduates can access.”
The filming also was affected by Nebraska weather, which required flexibility from all.
“It was a fun project, despite the challenges of social distancing, the inability to shoot indoors, a rainstorm and a broken elevator,” Fitzgibbon said. “One thing that I would note also is, everybody has been super helpful and cooperative in getting all this together under these unusual and complicated circumstances.”
The Go Big Grad Celebration was televised across the state through partnership with NET Nebraska. It also was broadcast online, where it has garnered more than 5,600 unique online viewers from 77 countries. It is still available for viewing online.
Gorman and Wetzel are both proud of the results of the massive effort, and said the experience has given them a blueprint for moving forward, should the traditional ceremony in August also need to be reconfigured.
“Somehow through the work of an army of people we were able to deliver an experience for the Class of 2020, which hopefully was meaningful and celebratory,” Wetzel said. “The positive of this entire experience is that components of this celebration may be used to enhance the traditional commencement experience going forward.”
And university leadership is steadfast in its promise to allow any May 2020 graduate to walk the Pinnacle Bank Arena stage in a future ceremony.
“Everyone has been adamant that even if every single one of them want to come back and walk in the future, we will make that happen.” Gorman said.