By Jeané Blunt. Last April, most of us were adjusting to the stay-at-home order, trying to set up a workspace in our home, or watching COVID-19 news 24/7. Dani Barker and her team were doing the same. The only difference is they were also trying to figure out how to plan a graduation for thousands of UC Santa Cruz students, in less than two months, while adhering to the new guidelines.
Dani Barker is associate director for College Student Life Operations & Staff Development at UC Santa Cruz. She is responsible for the coordination of commencement across campus, as well as the recruitment, hiring, and professional development for professional staff in colleges, housing, and educational services.
Devising a Plan
Back in April, Chancellor Larive tasked two committees, a steering committee and a committee of mostly event coordinators, to give a recommendation about what should happen with commencement. The event coordinator committee, chaired by Barker, was given a deadline of early May.
“Our recommendation to the chancellor was to work with Herff Jones, a vendor that already had a turnkey set-up ready for us through their work with two other vendors, Marching Order and StageClip,” said Barker. “We needed to have that contract signed by May 8. We got our recommendation into the chancellor on May 1, and on May 5 the chancellor gave us the go-ahead to move forward with this virtual commencement.”
Coordinators met for 90 minutes every week from early April through the delivery of commencement (the second week in June). “Just remembering what it was like to be a senior, we felt that it was really important to honor our students now,” said Barker. “A good number of us in this working group are, and were, first-gen students. We know that it’s really important for support networks to be able to recognize the accomplishment.”
Creating a Virtual Commencement
In the virtual commencement ceremony, each student got their own slide that featured their name, major, and any honors they were receiving. They were able to add a 150 character message and upload a photo. Barker’s team worked on campus to record videos, and the vendor, StageClip, pieced those videos together. Some commencement speakers came into the Learning Technologies Office to record, while observing social distancing guidelines, and some opted to record their speeches at home on Zoom. In the virtual commencement, the videos flowed seamlessly into the slide reading, then right into the chancellor’s conferral of degrees.
Students who registered to participate in the virtual commencement received a box that included a diploma cover, a class of 2020 pin, a tassel, a sticker, a tote bag from the alumni team, an official letter from the chancellor, and a congratulatory postcard from the UCSC faculty and staff.
The post-event feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “The end product exceeded my expectations,” Barker said. “The chancellor’s office loved it and faculty and staff were pleased with the outcome. I think we learned some things and there are pieces that we would do differently.”
How did they plan such a massive event in such a short amount of time? Barker credits her team. “I continued to be pleasantly surprised by how flexible my colleagues were,” said Barker. “We completely pivoted this massive event that typically brings over 40,000 people to campus, into a virtual event. We had 3,700 instances of students participating, they uploaded pictures and slides. All of that in 40 days. It’s miraculous. The group of coordinators I work with are fantastic. They were gracious and forgiving and we were all in it together, supporting each other as best we could. That group and team spirit was amazing and so helpful in this process.”