Behind the Scenes of Commencement’s Pomp and Circumstance

Dr. Gempesaw Addressing Graduates
May 9, 2019

Each May, St. John’s University transforms into a sea of red gowns and black mortarboards, as thousands of students, families, and friends converge on the Queens, NY, campus for undergraduate and graduate Commencement Exercises. For the more than 3,400 students earning degrees, it marks the end of a life-changing academic journey; for the University, the event is the culmination of a year of planning and coordination among multiple departments and offices.

“We begin planning the next year’s Commencement Exercises immediately following the current year,” said Nunziatina A. Manuli ’97MBA, Assistant Vice President, Office of University Events, who has worked on more than 90 Commencement events in her 22 years at St. John’s.

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The University uses 14,000 chairs for commencement.

While University Events oversees the Commencement Exercises, according to Ms. Manuli, it requires the collaboration and cooperation of nearly every department and office in the University. “University Events acts as the conductor of these well-orchestrated productions,” she said, noting that multiple employees serve in various roles on committees tasked with handling all aspects of Commencement.

Nearly 15,000 individuals attend the undergraduate Commencement Exercises for the Queens campus each year. Close to 2,000 guests attend the Commencement Exercises for the Staten Island, NY, campus, and approximately 10,000 guests in total attend one of the University’s six graduate-level Commencement Exercises, which includes the Rome, Italy, campus.

More than 100 members of the Department of Public Safety are on site the day of undergraduate Commencement, including full- and part-time officers, faculty, administrators, staff, and student workers.

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More than 100 members of the Department of Public Safety are on site for Commencement exercises.

“Our goal is to ensure that everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience,” said Denise Vencak-Toner, Executive Director, Public Safety and Risk Management.

The department also coordinates with the New York City Police Department for traffic control outside the campus, dignitary protection for special honorees, and emergency medical personnel on-site during the event. The New York City Fire Department is on standby in case of any fire concerns.

The undergraduate Commencement is a “rain or shine” event, and the University has 15,000 ponchos ready for distribution if rain is in the forecast. New York City Emergency Management monitors the region for extreme weather, which would be cause for postponement. To date, undergraduate Commencement has never been postponed due to weather.

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If the forecast calls for rain, St. John's has 15,000 ponchos on hand.

Like many departments at the University, Campus Facilities and Services also begins planning for the following year’s ceremonies soon after the final graduates leave the stage each May. However, the weeks leading up to the Exercises are the busiest for those involved with the buildings and grounds of St. John’s.

“There are a great number of setup requirements that are needed throughout the weeks, and we work as a team in coordinating and planning our resources,” said Brian Baumer, Associate Vice President, Campus Facilities and Services.

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10,000 various annuals are planted for commencement.

For example, approximately six days prior to Commencement, the grass on the Great Lawn is cut and watered one final time before sprinklers are shut off. Planting beds around campus are prepared with approximately 200 cubic yards of mulch and 10,000 various annuals are planted, as well as 100 Knock Out® roses, 100 day lilies,
and 200 phlox.

Curbs, speed bumps, light posts, and fire hydrants throughout campus are painted, and wooden snow fencing is installed around the Great Lawn and other areas.

St. John’s benefits from the assistance of nearly 20 different outside vendors, ranging from the Nassau Pops Symphony Orchestra, which provides the music; Ace Party and Tent Rental, responsible for arranging approximately 14,000 chairs on the Great Lawn; and Shadowbox Design Management, Inc., a production company that sets up the 50 ft. by 38 ft. mobile stage and two video screens.

Long before the stage is assembled on the Great Lawn, the Office of Marketing and Communications (MarCom) works with the Office of University Events to collect information for the various communication materials including banners and signs; email communications to faculty, staff, and students; event tickets; press passes; Commencement scrolls; and the University’s Commencement website.

MarCom also collaborates on the printed programs that are distributed at each of the ceremonies. This process begins in late fall/early winter, when the names of students earning undergraduate degrees are submitted by the Office of the Registrar and graduate degree student names are submitted by the individual schools or colleges.

“The biggest challenge is overseeing the many different components that are involved,” said Marybeth Alpers-Mauro, Associate Director, Brand. “It helps to have one vendor handle all the printing, so that each piece is consistent and accurate.” 

After all Commencement Exercises conclude, the 12-month process begins again in preparation for the following year’s events.

“Throughout the year of planning, the University community looks forward to being a part of this final celebration of our students,” said Ms. Manuli. “It is the culmination of all of their hard work and accomplishments during their time here at St. John’s.”