University of Florida Graduates Thousands: Coordinating One of the Biggest Graduation Events in the US
University of Florida ranks among America’s largest post-secondary institutions. To give you an idea of its size, previous universities I wrote about, such as Southern Methodist University and University of Miami, have student populations around 16,000, while UF’s is over 50,000! Donna Stricker, UF’s Commencement Coordinator, reveals how she has not only overseen the successful completion of various ceremonies, but has also managed to keep them all under ninety minutes long, as she is constantly mindful of the family members and friends who attend.
As I interviewed Stricker, one thing that impressed me was how organized UF was: a school of that size with so many students to coordinate must really have every element in precise order. “But no matter how hard you plan, something’s always going to come up,” Stricker acknowledged. A common problem that arises in larger institutions is when other events on campus coincide with commencement, which can result in parking issues. “You plan as much as you can in advance and foresee problems that arise. If things do arise that you haven’t planned for, you have to think on your feet.” As an employee of a university that offers a plethora of graduate degrees, Stricker jokingly imparted her philosophy: “I work with people who are much more intelligent than I am, so I rely on them a lot.”
All institutions, no matter their size or nature, have to work through a web of organizers to plan an event. University of Florida, being a particularly large university, has worked on streamlining coordination between UF’s many schools and offices. “The biggest thing we’ve improved is the communication from my level to all the other levels involved in planning the ceremonies,” Stricker noted. Since the University of Florida literally has nothing short of sixteen graduation ceremonies in spring, the school has worked at standardizing protocol throughout them all. “We’ve started making sure we have everything in writing so everyone’s on the same page and understands what’s going on.”
One of University of Florida’s most challenging goals is keeping all ceremonies under ninety minutes each, even their Advanced Degree Ceremony that graduates 1,100 to 1,200 students. “People in the audience are there for one reason: to see their son, daughter, friend—whomever—graduate,” Stricker asserted. “They aren’t concerned about the other couple thousand people graduating—they want to see their special person walk across the stage. If we can do that for them in an hour and half, they’d much prefer that than sitting there for four hours.”
Because of the sheer number of graduates in large ceremonies like UF’s Advanced Degree Ceremony, and the sheer number of ceremonies total, the university wound up eliminating all commencement speeches and special performances. Including these would have meant forcing family and friends of graduates to sit in their seats for untold hours. However, all ceremonies include honorary degrees, recognize distinguished alumni, and feature the school’s very own brass quintet during the processional. Further, prior to the ceremony, UF displays two forty-five minute videos covering the school’s 150+ year history. “A lot of families get there very early. I mean, you can only look at your program for so long…then what do you do?” Stricker said. “So we started showing these videos to engage the audience.” The videos are specifically designed so that someone could arrive at the auditorium and start watching at anytime and understand what’s going on. Additionally, the videos help get the ceremony started in a timely fashion: “we have them cued up so that as soon as they’re over, it’s time for the processional to start.” Thus, by including a video that details the school’s history prior to the ceremony, and recognizing alums and honorary students briefly, the ceremony acknowledges the school’s history, while focusing on its future: the graduating students.