Gormans find purpose, satisfaction as commencement leaders

· 7 min read

Gormans find purpose, satisfaction as commencement leaders

Behind the scenes
Dr. Bob and Dr. Vanessa Gorman at the 2024 undergraduate commencement in Memorial Stadium.
Kristen Labadie | University Communication and Marketing
Bob and Vanessa Gorman played important roles at the 2024 undergraduate commencement in Memorial Stadium.

Bob and Vanessa Gorman are the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s power couple on commencement day. Faculty in classics and religious studies (as well as a professor of history role for Vanessa), the Gormans find purpose and satisfaction in helping direct the graduation experience, particularly seeing joy in students’ eyes.

The University Communication and Marketing team sat down with the Gormans in the days prior to spring 2024 commencement exercises on May 17-18.

Talk about the role you play during commencement. How did you get involved?

Bob: I was an undergraduate here in the 1980s and when I graduated, I didn’t want to go to commencement. My parents told me I had to, so I did. I was really impressed by how friendly and how well organized all of the marshals and registrar staff were. It was really a good experience, and I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. Fast forward and I became a faculty member roughly 30 years ago. Some years later the dean sent out a note asking for interest in taking the head marshal position and I said “yes,” and I have been doing it ever since.

As the head marshal, my primary job is to make sure students get their diploma on graduation day. There are very few universities of Nebraska’s size who hand out each student’s diploma in the moment. The registrar makes sure the diplomas are ready and in order and my job is to make sure students are coming up on stage in the right order. This means I organize seating charts, sections for each college and facilitate the organization of students’ movements. I must design, plan and delegate marshals to share information. It can be complicated because the stadium has three stages and four lines, and each commencement is different.

Vanessa: When Bob became head marshal, one August commencement he had spent too much time standing in the heat and ended up in the hospital with heat stroke. Ever since then, I decided to become involved. I have been on the commencement committee for nine years now and have been the chair for five years. In this role, I run meetings with the larger group and weekly meetings with a smaller focused group. As the chair, I am a problem solver, a resource for students and staff and put out fires.

My role as a marshal is to assist Bob in many ways. One of the bigger things I do is make commencement maps so all of the marshals know where they are assigned duties. I make separate booklets for each of the undergraduate and graduate ceremonies. If we are in Memorial Stadium, I ensure all of the chairs are numbered properly and help out wherever I can. If commencement is in Pinnacle Bank Arena, I organize the lines and put signage and instructions up behind the stage.

We have streamlined as many of the processes as we can with our years of experience so we can avoid working until the early hours of commencement day.

What is the preparation or lead-up to commencement look like?

Bob: The two weeks leading up to commencement are spent getting plans drawn up. So, I need to have the arrangements made for the stadium because we need to number all the chairs at Memorial. We have to decide which order the colleges go in so we can print the correct numbers and draw maps for that. It takes a lot of time to draw this up and coordinate with the registrar’s office for printing. But we have amazing event planners and committees who are very good to work with. Throughout the week of commencement, it is our job to put the numbers on chairs and make sure chairs are in order. We also spend time making sure we have all the necessary accommodations. We also meet with Honor Guard, ROTC, marshals and other groups to practice. We are constantly running back and forth from Pinnacle Bank Arena for the graduate ceremony and Memorial for the undergraduate ceremony.

Vanessa: Our committee is a well-oiled machine. We have amazing people from event planning and University Communication to the Office of the University Registrar and faculty that help. One of the reasons we have been doing this as long as we have is because it’s like being with family. We work very, very well together.

Vanessa Gorman helps Kaylee Bray (left), a Psychology major with a knee injury, to her seat.
Kristen Labadie | University Communication and Marketing
Vanessa Gorman, professor in history and classics and religious studies, helps Kaylee Bray (left), a psychology major, to her seat.

How long have you been involved in commencement ceremonies? In all your years, do you have any favorite memories?

Bob: I have been involved in commencement for 25 or so years, but have served as the head marshal for 9 years.

My favorite memory is that students are very, very happy at graduation. You see, I was one of these students who thought they were too cool to be excited and enjoy being at graduation. Students who have a similar mindset look down at their diplomas and they just can’t help but show how happy they are. I’ve seen that happen hundreds of times and watching students is my favorite thing.

Vanessa: This is my ninth year!

One of my favorite memories is a student who was quickly running into the commencement ceremony and unfortunately broke her heel. The Associate Registrar Gail Meyer gave the student the shoes off of her feet so they could enjoy their commencement. That was certainly one of the most touching moments I have seen.

For the students, it’s not when they cross the stage or shake hands with their dean, it’s when they sit down, open their diploma and see their name on it. They almost always hold it up for mom and dad. It is such a priceless moment.

What is your favorite part of your role in commencement?

Bob: For me, it’s the satisfaction of doing something that people don’t think can be done. We hear from colleagues at other universities “there’s no way you can give students their diplomas at the ceremony.” But we have done it forever. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. It is worth doing because when the students see their name on the diploma, they are glad they came to graduation. You wouldn’t think it matters if the student receives their diploma that day or a few weeks later in the mail, but it does.

Vanessa: The rituals of commencement — getting your cap and gown, lining up, listening to Pomp and Circumstance. There’s a reason why these rituals are important in people’s lives, and even more important this time because this is the COVID class. They didn’t have a high school graduation.

Bob is right — I love making this moment happen for students. We get a much higher attendance rate for graduation than most universities with nearly 85% of the class attending the ceremony. We work with amazing people who depend on one another to bring this whole ceremony together.

That’s why we do it. We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t for the students.

Robert Gorman works on running Graduate Commencement.
Kristen Labadie | University Communication and Marketing
Robert Gorman, associate professor in classics and religious studies, works behind the scenes during graduate commencement ceremonies.

Is there anything you think people would be interested to know about the work that goes on behind the scenes at commencement?

Bob: There are so many moving parts, but most of them are small in themselves. There is also a lot behind the scenes that students and families do not see. There is a DJ, spaces for volunteers and faculty members, and each member is wearing a headset so we can communicate with each other. The ceremony is also televised and streamed internationally.

Vanessa: Most would be surprised about the level of detail that goes into making commencement happen. I am making sure the right person gets in the right line to get the right diploma.

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