Willamette’s Future Burns Brighter: The School that Launched a Thousand Candles
The first university founded in the west, Willamette University, established in Salem, Oregon in 1842, has its own particular vibe. A stream runs through campus amongst lush trees and other plant-life that adorn its green fields, and due to its small size and rich history, the school takes pride in offering a unique commencement experience. Michelle Maynard, Willamette’s Director of Special Events, who is in charge of scheduling all logistics and venues for commencement and all the events associated with it, shared with me the how Willamette celebrates graduates, their mothers, and the unique educational journeys (past and present) each of its students take.
Although Michelle Maynard has the captain hat on, she told me about all the people at the helm: the staff members on the Commencement Planning committee she chairs, the representatives from Willamette’s undergraduate and graduate schools, the facilities staff, those who work in the Registrar, those who cater for the event, and volunteers—comprise the roughly 300-person staff who all help to make commencement weekend a success. After all, four different ceremonies take place all in one day, from 9 o’ clock in the morning until 6 o’ clock at night on one day, and that’s going to take a lot of coordination. In fact, Willamette begins the planning stages for its commencement in May all the way back in fall. From early April onward, the committee meets every week until commencement.
The day of commencement is an unusually hectic one for Willamette, which, on average, graduates around 700 students. “All year long, that’s the day that everyone descends on our little campus!” Maynard states. “We estimate about 6,000 people come to campus that day! We have to worry about crowd control, particularly regarding capacity for the food service building where we serve brunch through the morning and early afternoon.” More on that later. What Willamette has perfected is its system for handling the large amounts of people that come pouring into the school on graduation day, inundating its limited parking. “We have volunteers in our parking lots who guide the people driving around to vacant parking spaces. Every year, we work on making procedure a little more customer friendly in terms of managing all the people coming to campus.” But Maynard asserts that the challenge is not unique to her school, or even commencement. “On even our best days during the school year, parking is always a challenge—it’s probably one of the top challenges for all universities. So how do you manage parking on the busiest day of the year? That’s something we improve on each May.”
Setting Willamette’s commencement experience apart from other schools is the “Elegant Brunch” the university offers graduates and their families throughout the morning and early afternoon on commencement day. Not a small feat, particularly for a small school, as the brunch typically serves approximately 1, 200 people . The school has organized the event so that graduates and parents may purchase tickets online beforehand (and they have a price incentive to do so) or at the door. Further, over the years, Maynard and her committee have streamlined the event. “We adjusted the times between ceremonies and we make sure to publicize brunch times for different schools,” Maynard states. “Basically, this stretches the crowd out throughout the day, so we don’t get a big rush all at once.”
One might wonder, why a brunch at commencement? How did this tradition emerge? “Most of the time, depending on how the calendar falls, our commencement is on Mother’s Day,” Maynard explains. “When we’re on Mother’s Day, the brunch provides a nice food option because people are trying to find something special to do for Mom. They often think, ‘I’ll take my mom out for brunch,’ and that’s where this tradition stems from.” But Willamette’s brunch event isn’t just about a national holiday—it also highlights elements very unique to the school: its picturesque campus, atmosphere, and unique culture. “The brunch encourages families to stay on campus instead of attending a graduation ceremony and immediately leaving,” Maynard says. “It allows them to linger and really experience Willamette’s culture.”
On top of its unique brunch on the day of graduation, the school hosts a “Senior Soirée” on the Thursday prior to commencement. The Soirée aerves as a lead-in to the major commencement weekend, as it features awards to graduating students and a formal toast in their honor. “That event has changed over the years,” Maynard said. “It’s been refined to a special and meaningful moment for the seniors.” Willamette’s commencement itself is steeped in tradition. Nearly all universities’ commencement ceremonies feature music, whether played by the school band, music majors, or sung by the students. But Willamette University not only features its very own a capella group, but also includes a musical component radically different from other schools: bagpipers.
The bagpipers play during the commencement’s processional. Faculty line up in two separate lines facing one and other, and students walk through this ‘cordon of honor’, which gives them the opportunity to hug or high five faculty on their way into the commencement tent. “The bagpipers also come to our Opening Days—when the incoming students first come to campus,” Maynard explains. “At the opening convocation, the first major lecture the freshmen hear, these musicians lead in the faculty.” Moreover, the bagpipers also play during matriculation, a ceremony in which the incoming freshmen each place a floating lit candle on the Mill Stream that runs through campus. “The bagpipers are part of Willamette culture—it’s something students experience their freshman year when they arrive and senior year when they graduate,” says Maynard. Thus, the bagpipers serve as a traditional symbol, greeting students on the brink of their educational journey, and bidding farewell to those who are graduating, who are setting out, just as the floating candles
along Mill Stream, down the current life has in store for them.