Behind the pomp and circumstance
Meet some UofSC staff members who work behind the scenes on commencement day
By Megan Sexton, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-1421
Thousands of University of South Carolina students will walk across the stage this weekend and join the ranks of Gamecock alumni.
But long before the ceremonies begin, a band of staff from around the university pull together behind the scenes to make sure each commencement ceremony is a smooth one. From hanging the banners, to making sure the sound is pitch perfect, to being sure every graduate is in the right seat — it’s a massive undertaking by faculty and staff from around the university.
Here is a look at just a few of them.
Andrew Fink: associate registrar for client services
Andrew Fink earned his master’s degree in education and has worked at the university for 25 years – nine of those in the registrar’s office. During commencement, he serves as the lead marshal for the pre-ceremony and ceremony at the Colonial Life Arena; you’ll see him and other registrar staff members dressed in garnet robes, directing graduates on the floor and helping friends and family in the audience.
Duties at commencement: “As the lead marshal, I direct all of our on-site commencement staff. That includes 11 ushers, two seat assignment staff members, someone to help with accessibility issues, four who help students with academic regalia, and then people who staff program tables in the lobby.”
The importance of the day: “We understand that this is a high-profile public event, so customer service and ensuring a high-quality image is of utmost importance. Our staff understand that this is a celebration and that the hard work of our students is what has gotten them there.”
What commencement means: “It symbolizes the culmination of many years of hard work, and it’s a time for students and family and friends to recognize and celebrate success. And it's just really a lot of fun to see students come here to Carolina and work so hard, and then finally get to walk across that stage and graduate.”
Sharing the workload: “It takes a lot of dedicated people to make this happen. There are many, many, many people that work prior to commencement to put everything together. It’s a large team effort.”
Vinny Hourigan: CLA production manager
As production manager for Colonial Life Arena, Vinny Hourigan takes care of all the theatrical aspects of commencement – meaning he’s responsible for making sure the arena looks and sounds perfect for the thousands of grads marching across the stage each December and May.
He also is responsible for the sound system, making sure everything comes through loud and clear. Hourigan started at UofSC in 1999, working at the Carolina Coliseum before CLA opened. “When I first came here, I didn't understand the importance of commencement,” he says. “I learned very quickly. It is truly the most important event I do all year, and it feels that way going in. And if everything goes well, it feels good on the way out.”
Getting set for the big event: “We hang 80-foot wide by 60-foot high heavy velour curtains. And once those are hung, we put the two USC banners on the opposite sides of the (replica McKissick monument) statue at center stage. We can usually do that in about an hour and 10 minutes. And these days, most of the time, it's at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
The view from the mixing booth: “It’s probably the best seat in the house. It’s unobstructed and I can see everything that goes on.”
Crossing the finish line: “I've been telling people for a long time, if nobody notices me, I've done my job well. It's important to me that nothing is marred by feedback or inadequate volumes. And, let's face it, it's the finish line for every student that has come here and has paid tuition, it’s the finish line for the parents who are in the seats. So, the less people notice me, the better I feel that I've done.”
Laveta Gibson, School of Music
Laveta Gibson doesn’t play an instrument or sing a note at commencement, but as executive assistant to the dean at the School of Music, she makes sure the right notes get played by the right people at the right time. And there’s a lot of coordination.
“The same faculty have pretty much done it for years, so they know that they're going to get an email from me saying, ‘I need a string quartet’ or whatever I need for each ceremony,” she says.
Making the music: The music school’s voice faculty members select students who sing the national anthem, preferably a student in the graduating class, while the string quartet, band and orchestra also have roles in the various ceremonies.
A winning soundtrack: “I think it's nice that the School of Music is represented everywhere at commencement. I don't think there is another school that's really represented like that. Plus, you remember the sounds from commencement. I mean, I remember people that sang at my commencement.”
David Cockfield: director of live productions, USC Athletics
As director of live productions for the university’s athletics department, David Cockfield produces SEC network broadcasts for sports including soccer, baseball and basketball. During commencement, Cockfield sits in the control room 2 miles away at Williams-Brice Stadium, making sure the thousands in the crowd at commencement ceremonies can see photos, read facts about the university and watch the live video feed as they sit in the Colonial Life Arena. He also is responsible for video boards for football, basketball and baseball.
Moving to CLA from the Coliseum in 2002: “There was this nice video board they wanted to use, which means a control room and cameras and people to make all of that happen.”
Why commencement matters: “When it’s sports, especially right now that we're in baseball and softball season, you get to play the next day. With commencement, you usually only walk across that stage one time, so you would like to make sure that you get pictures of those people walking across the stage. It’s important. It's a memorable event. So you want to get it right.”
Mark Smith: curator, McKissick Museum; keeper of the mace and medallion
Mark Smith is the curator for exhibition and collection management at McKissick Museum on the Horseshoe. He’s also a product of the university, having earned a B.A., M.A. and Master of Library and Information Science, which makes his role as keeper of the university’s ceremonial mace and medallion that much more meaningful. “I'm an alumnus myself,” he says, “so I think having the mace is a very interesting part of our university tradition.”
About the mace: Along with the medallion, the mace was presented to the university in 1967, crafted by a British silversmith. It’s nearly 4 feet long and features the seals of the United States, the state of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina.
Mace and medallion at commencement: As part of the ceremony, the student government president carries the 15-pound mace in the commencement procession. When it is placed on its stand on the commencement platform, it signifies the ceremony is about to begin. The university president wears the medallion around his neck at commencement.
Keeping up with the mace: “We keep it polished, get it repaired, whatever is needed. It is in the case and secured on our first floor (at McKissick), so people can take a look when they walk through. For commencement, the police sign it out, we inspect it, and they deliver it to commencement. Everyone has to have on white gloves when they touch it; we don’t want fingerprints on it because it is silver with some gold. When commencement is over the police bring it all back and we put it back on display.”
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