Working behind scenes, Wetzel strives to make commencement special

· 5 min read

Working behind scenes, Wetzel strives to make commencement special

Annette Wetzel smiles for a photo with her arms outstretched in a sea of Husker grads before undergraduate commencement
Annette Wetzel smiles for a photo with her arms outstretched in a sea of Husker grads before undergraduate commencement

For dozens and dozens of commencement ceremonies, Nebraska’s Annette Wetzel has been working behind the scenes with a crew of Huskers, making sure the day is special for graduates and their families. The University Communication and Marketing team sat down with Wetzel to get a behind-the-scenes look at the planning that goes into celebrating our Husker grads.

Talk about the role you play during commencement.

It takes an army to put on commencement. There are really dedicated people behind the scenes that have been investing lots of their time in commencement for years. I have served on the University Commencement and Recognition Committee for 25 years and there are devoted professionals who have served much longer than me.

It is a great group of people that are dedicated to making commencement the most special day it can be for our students and their family and friends. My general role is to pull all the pieces together. I work with logistics, production, vendors, scripting of the ceremony, working with the administration and their roles and all the dignitaries that may be invited to the ceremony. It is a varied role, to say the least.

How long have you been involved in commencement ceremonies? Any favorite moments?

I personally have been involved for 25 years. UNL is my alma mater. I have two degrees from here and I am passionate about this place. My favorite moments of commencement are watching students cross the stage and hearing their parents whooping and hollering. Everyone is so proud. I also like to watch the shoes. Yes, the shoes. As the students go across the stage, you see the craziest shoes sometimes. One day I am going to write a book called “The Shoes of Commencement.”

Everyone gets to see your hard work on the day of but they might not know about all the work that goes into preparing (literally months and months in advance). Can you talk about the planning that goes into commencement? For May commencement, we started meeting on a weekly basis starting in January. As soon as May is over we are already into August commencement and planning for December. It is a year-round activity.

What does the day/morning of a ceremony look like?

The morning of commencement we are usually there two hours before the doors open but we have been working long hours the week of commencement just to set up the venues. It is not just on that day. The day of commencement things are in motion. Your job should be literally done at that point and you are in the execution mode. I always say if the show can go on without me the day of commencement then I have done my job. Usually the day of commencement, we are putting out the fires that we could not have foreseen. Maybe traffic has kept students or speakers from being there on time. Maybe a glitch in the technology happens. At that point we are just putting out fires. Planning should all be done.

How have commencement ceremonies evolved over the years?

When I started the ceremonies they did not have as much technology. The ceremonies are more of a production now which makes it more entertaining. We are working on adding new features all the time.

Commencement ceremonies and protocol are fascinating. So much so that for my master’s thesis in Journalism, I wrote the history of UNL commencement. All the venues it took place, honorary degrees given and speakers through the history. It has been extremely useful to me in planning present-day commencements.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I love the people I get to meet and the challenge of new events and old events. Everyone says you should have commencement all down pat by now but each commencement is truly different with new challenges.

Another one of my favorite moments at commencement is the recognition of our ROTC students. The University has a long history of our students serving in the military. These young men and women deserve the recognition and often standing ovations for the service they are about to commit their lives to. It is a moving moment in the ceremony.

Is there anything you think people don’t know/would be interested to know about the work that goes on behind the scenes at commencement?

We are one of the very few universities that hand out the actual diploma on stage. It requires a huge herculean effort by many people to make that happen. My counterparts at other universities are amazed that we can do that with the large numbers we graduate. They often say it cannot be done, but we show them! It can be done and has been done for many, many years. It is our tradition and we are very proud of it.

Is there anything you’ve taken from past ceremonies and continue to use today?

Dr. Roger Mandigo was the head marshal for more than 30 years. I worked with him when I first started at the University. He was a professor of Meat Science and the best event planner I ever met. He would say two things and they are something I think about for every commencement. 1. Devil is in the details. We are all about the details, excruciating as they may seem. 2. Commencement is an event for the students and their families and friends. It is a family event and we should never lose sight of that fact.

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