How to Make Commencement Memorable

Commencement is probably the most important event of the academic year. It is a celebration of student success, and, at a time of rising skepticism about the value of a college degree, it may be higher education’s best marketing opportunity. Yet, often it is squandered.

I worked 11 commencements during my tenure as director of public relations for The City College of New York. For the most part, they were staid affairs marked by a series of lengthy, but unmemorable, speeches. The only speech I recall was the one I heard 10 times delivered by Sen. Charles Schumer in which he tells his story of being dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to go to law school and, eventually, into politics.

Schumer_CCNY Commencement
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, makes it his business to speak at as many commencements as he can. His message is the same: “Go for it.”

While a prominent commencement speaker can generate publicity, the resulting story might not align well with the institution’s mission. That happened my first year when City College gave President Bill Clinton an honorary degree. I started the job only two weeks before and had to scramble to get the word out and draw reporters to the event. We got good coverage, but the headlines focused mainly on Clinton’s criticism of his successor’s policies.

Commencement should be, first and foremost, about the students. That is why what I enjoyed most was walking among the students to take candid photos that we would post on the college Facebook page and the website.

Although the graduates get recognized individually in ceremonies conducted by their respective schools and divisions at City College, they are mostly anonymous participants in the college-wide event. All they get to do is listen to the speeches and move their tassel from one side of the cap to the other.

CCNY Commencement
The big moment: When students become graduates and alumni.

To bring greater recognition to the members of the graduating class and tell some of their individual stories, my staff and I created a special web site called Great Grads. It consisted of 12 – 15 brief profiles of the graduates. Ideally, all units of the college would be represented. In addition, we sought to reflect the diversity of the student body.

Early in the spring, we would request nominations from deans, faculty members and administrators. From this list of candidates, we would identify the students to profile. Although we included the valedictorian and salutatorian, our selection criteria were not limited to academic achievement.

We sought out students with compelling human-interest stories or unusual experiences because they tied into City College’s mission of providing “access to excellence” for generations of students from working class and immigrant families. We also wanted to reflect the diversity of the student body, since CCNY is one of the most diverse institutions in the country.

The product was a hit with the college community and alumni to the extent that the development office incorporated it into their fundraising. Print versions of Great Grads were produced for the President’s Gala dinner, a post-commencement event attended by well-off alumni.

The Great Grads were invited to the dinner, as well, where they sat among the guests and were recognized during the program. Their presence helped the alums connect with the graduating class and share each other’s experiences.

I keep in touch with some of the Great Grads through Facebook. Some are doing exciting things in their life, such as running for Congress. A few are “dreamers” who must be wondering how long they will be allowed to stay in this country. All of them had great stories that deserved to be told. No doubt, so did most of the other graduates.

My boss had a saying: “Nothing comes easy at City College.” That certainly could be said for earning a degree there. Many graduates had to juggle work and family responsibilities with schoolwork. The student who was able to finish his or her undergraduate studies in four years was rare.

The students should be the stars of commencement. With all due respect to Senator Schumer and the other speakers, the stories that matter belong to the graduates. They have a common theme: “If I can make it, so can you.”

You don’t need to go to the trouble of creating a program like Great Grads. Use social media to tell those stories and give the grads their platform. Have them post on YouTube and Facebook. Create a hashtag to incorporate tweets from commencement into the program. You’ll create a mass of content including dozens of testimonials that can be incorporated into videos, viewbooks and web pages. Can anything be a better celebration of student success at your institution?

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