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UTEP Commencement Involves Many Moving Parts

Last Updated on December 20, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Originally published December 20, 2018

By Daniel Perez

UTEP Communications

Before the first of three Commencement ceremonies Dec. 15, 2018, Frank Montes de Oca III walks the floor of The University of Texas at El Paso's Don Haskins Center (DHC). He carries a small black plastic coffee cup in one hand as he greets colleagues with smiles, hugs and handshakes. He gets updates and answers questions from members of the Commencement production team.

Students line up in Memorial Gym before walking to the Don Haskins Center to celebrate Winter Commencement on Dec. 15, 2018. Faculty, staff and students put in hundreds of hours from the initial planning sessions to rehearsals to make sure the event is as special and memorable as possible for each graduate.
Students line up in Memorial Gym before walking to the Don Haskins Center to celebrate Winter Commencement on Dec. 15, 2018. Faculty, staff and students put in hundreds of hours from the initial planning sessions to rehearsals to make sure the event is as special and memorable as possible for each graduate. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

Much of the responsibility to oversee the winter ceremonies falls on his shoulders. Montes de Oca has worked for UTEP’s Office of University Relations for 16 years. He manages the University’s larger institutional events such as Commencements and Convocations.

Commencement at UTEP is a celebration of achievement. It is an exclamation point to an academic journey. Faculty, staff and students put in hundreds of hours from the initial planning sessions to rehearsals to make sure the event is as special and memorable as possible for each graduate. Montes de Oca, who earned two degrees from UTEP (B.A. ’93 and MBA ’02), takes that responsibility seriously.

For the most part, he is a man in frenetic motion that Saturday morning. His face registers concentration and anticipation. At some point, he dons a black master’s degree gown to better blend into his surroundings.

“It’s just the regular mayhem,” he says, tongue-in-cheek, as he rushes past a visitor near the DHC’s “Green Room,” where members of the platform party prep for the 9 a.m. ceremony to begin.

These UTEP productions involve plenty of people from the highest levels of University administration to volunteers who operate concession stands inside the DHC. There are meetings, decisions, agreements and rehearsals. There also are the occasional, but expected, setbacks.

Preparation for events such as the winter 2018 Commencement start with the selection of the date, which could be made up to two years in advance. The planning of the event begins around the beginning of the fall semester, and a lot happens between then and the opening notes of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Here is a little insight into what goes into these bi-annual celebrations.

Months in Advance

Organizers invite representatives from every campus office, college and school who could be involved in Commencement to the planning meetings. The first requests go out for possible grand marshals, student and faculty marshals, and banner bearers. Nominations start to come in about six weeks before Commencement.

While those involved in the process could reach about 250, Montes de Oca said the number of key planning personnel ranges from 15 to 20, and they often spend hundreds of hours organizing the ceremony and then executing it. 

Beto Lopez, assistant vice president for institutional advancement, and the Commencement’s “executive producer,” said different groups are involved in such things as coordination of faculty and staff volunteers, finalization of student paperwork, production of the event program, and development of the script for University President Diana Natalicio. Each component has its own deadline.

Lopez said each ceremony must be special because it marks the end of an academic experience and the beginning of a brighter future for the graduate and his or her family. He also brought up the occasion’s social significance for the former students and the University, which contributes greatly to the region.

“(UTEP) makes a conscientious effort to be involved in the community in areas such as social justice and equality,” he said. “We do things for the greater good of the community and we like that Commencement reflects these values. It’s not just the graduates who celebrate. It is the entire community because (the graduates) have achieved their goal.”

One Week to Go

Members of the UTEP Office of Special Events cover the hardwood basketball court with a thick plastic interlocking floor cover. Then they construct the 60-foot wide stage deck, which is a carpeted plastic that rises between 32 inches and 48 inches from the floor.

UTEP Commencement organizers used the Haskins Center for rehearsals on Thursday, Dec. 13. Individuals selected to be grand marshals, banner bearers, and faculty and student marshals come to learn their cues and responsibilities. The rehearsals are scheduled in shifts based on the three Commencement ceremonies – morning, afternoon and evening. Organizers are looking for precision and floor placement. The banner bearers hold up the real banners with 8-foot poles and leather harnesses. The grand marshals carry a substitute University mace. In both cases, the holders find out about the items’ weight and the proper way to hold them. Officials tape small red squares to the floor to mark the places where the banner bearers will stand. The student and faculty marshals, who guide graduates and candidates from their staging area at Memorial Gym to their seats at the Haskins Center to the stage and back to their seats, learn that part of their job will be to “corral the energy of the graduates.”

Lopez meets informally with the morning ceremony’s banner bearers and marshals close to noon. He talks about Commencement and advises them to arrive at the DHC about 90 minutes before their ceremony. He invites Bonny Schulenburg, president of UTEP’s Alumni Association, to address the group. She promotes the association and presents each person with a special orange stole with University and association logos that will signify their role as marshals. 

Earlier in the rehearsal, Montes de Oca confers with Todd Culpepper, the accounts manager with Whelan Event Services, which handles parking, security and search tables at Commencement. They talk about available technology and the need to train a few new people.

On the black wood stage, about a dozen representatives from the offices of Registration and Records, Enrollment Services, Admissions and Recruitment, and Student Financial Aid practice their system of reading the graduates’ names and the best process to hand diploma holders to the UTEP official who will give it to the graduates.

Montes de Oca watches and listens as the volunteers’ practice how the candidate’s name card gets to the reader, who should state the name slowly enough to annunciate, but fast enough to keep the lines moving. Organizers expect about 600 candidates to participate in the morning ceremony. Montes de Oca suggests the volunteers pick up the pace. They start again, but this time, it is almost comically fast. Eventually they find the right cadence. For practice, a “student” reaches the stage without a card and verbally gives his name to the reader’s assistant, who must clearly pronounce the name in the reader’s ear.

The big screen behind the stage is running an animated video that shows an ore cart on a wild ride. Organizers will try out the audio and visual effects and test the livestream later that afternoon. 

In the back of the arena, Ricky Nichols is calm and happy. The assistant director in the Office of Special Events has helped organize around 18 Commencement ceremonies during the past three years. He oversees the stagehands, custodians, lights, audio and video, among other things. He said his Commencement duties usually start in November when he begins to work with the registrar’s office for a seat count, Sodexo for catering, and all aspects of video, audio and theatrical lighting.

His crew of about 35 custodians and eight stagehands return after each ceremony to prepare for the next one. The stagehands reconfigure the stage seating when necessary, resupply the stage with diploma holders, and make sure the right number of seats are ready on the floor.  

Commencement Day

The sun is still sleeping as about 25 security personnel sign in at about 5:30 a.m. at the security offices on the DHC concourse. The security vendor expects to deploy about 75 people that day. They will secure parking lots, serve as ushers, or operate search tables outside the DHC. The ones who will work outdoors in the parking lots don yellow reflective vests.

At 5:55, Victor Calderon is setting up a food table inside Memorial Gym a few doors from the auxiliary gym. His insulated bags of burritos, trays of pastries and cut fruit, canisters of coffee and pitchers of water are for the volunteers who will help register graduates throughout the day. The Sodexo supervisor sets the items on tables covered with orange tablecloths. While he has prepared similar tables through the years, he said doing it for Commencement is special.

“There’s more enthusiasm because your friends are graduating,” said Calderon, a junior mechanical engineering major. “I hope I am in that position (to graduate) one day.” 

It is a little after 6 a.m. and Dan Hays, chief operating officer of Candid Color Photography, supervises and assists a handful of his employees as they prepare their photo areas in the Memorial Gym lobby. He said he expects his photographers to take in excess of 12,000 photos, including those in front of green screens, the diploma handshake on the DHC stage, in front of a blue and gray background after the graduates return to the floor, and candid photos of the procession and of graduates with friends and family.

Around the same time, organizers turn on the DHC lights and the audiovisual team begins to make video, audio and lighting checks.

At 6:10, University Registrar Nohemi Gallarzo checks the auxiliary gym to make sure all is ready for when they open to graduates no later than 7 a.m. She said her staff, who would work all three ceremonies, did most of the set up the night before after the El Paso Community College graduation. She said 2,577 students were eligible to join in the ceremony and she expected about 80 percent to participate. The line of graduates starts to form around 6:30 a.m., about the same time the sun starts to come up. It is 31 degrees outside.

“Today is the fun part,” she says as she gets updates about some staff who will be out sick or who will be late because of a traffic incident. “At this point, we have it down to a science. We know what to do.”

6:55: The florists have arrived. They unload numerous potted red poinsettias and some green plants in boxes. Two women space the plants across the stage and add sparkling white bows to each.

7 a.m.: Steve Haddad, conductor of UTEP’s Ceremonial Brass Ensemble, clears some folding chairs from where his group will perform a 30-minute concert prior to Commencement. His musicians know that these audiences probably will be the largest to hear them play.

“We’re going to perform some great music, but we know that people just want to hear “Pomp and Circumstance,” said Haddad, wearing a black tuxedo and a smile.

On the DHC floor, stagehands make minor alterations to the front of the stage. Audiovisual personnel test the pre-Commencement slide show on the arena’s big screens.

7:35: UTEP’s Chamber Singers, conducted by Elisa Fraser Wilson, DMA, associate professor of choral music and voice, practice the Star-Spangled Banner.

7:40: Octavio Chacon, manager of one of the food concession booths, said he has worked UTEP sporting events for two years, but this is his first Commencement ceremony. His station would sell the standards: soda, popcorn, hot dogs, nachos and the like. He said he looked forward to working this event because it was a festive, positive occasion.

“I feel good about this event,” Chacon said. “Usually I work events where someone wins and someone loses, but today, everyone’s a winner.” 

DHC doors open to the public at 8 a.m. and families and friends stream into the arena.

8:50: Ofelia Dominguez, director of Union Services, enters the Green Room to tell President Natalicio about a small change to the script, which the President notes in her speech binder. The President agrees to a few group shots with members of the stage party.

8:55: Lopez, the executive producer, says simply, “OK, time to go,” and members of the stage party head to the tunnel, where they stand on their marks. College of Liberal Arts faculty will follow them, and then the graduates will bring up the rear.

The lights go off, the spotlights turn on, the ensemble starts “Pomp and Circumstance” and the ceremony begins at 9 o’clock.

Montes de Oca is still a man in motion during the ceremony. Either he sees things to do or he gets updates or questions from his production team. He eventually finds time to have something to eat, but he does it quickly, and hastily returns to the ceremony.

When the President finishes the ceremony with “Go Miners!,” the banner bearers react to their cue and the ensemble begins to play. The graduates exit the building, as do the well-wishers.

By 10:50 a.m., the arena is almost empty as stagehands and the custodial crew sweep through to make any necessary changes before the next ceremony at 2 p.m. They will do the same for the 7 p.m. ceremony. 

The evening Commencement ends around 9:20 p.m. and the crews begin to remove the chairs on the floor, disassemble the stage and music platforms and lift off the temporary floor to prepare the DHC for a men’s basketball game the next day. They work until about 3 a.m. Another crew shows up at 6 a.m. to complete the transformation from a Commencement hall to a basketball arena in time for the doors to open at noon.

A few days later, Montes de Oca said he was pleased with how the three ceremonies went.

“Commencement is my favorite part of my job because of the energy and the excitement,” he said. “(Commencement ceremonies) make for long days, and you feel it physically, but we’re also filled with happiness and that comes across to the graduates and their loved ones. We all feel that way … faculty, staff … we don’t want it to stop.”

The good news for Montes de Oca is that he can start planning the spring 2019 ceremonies in a few weeks. Let the “mayhem” continue.


Related article: UTEP Celebrates 2018 Winter Commencement