It is either rude or selfish, perhaps both, when a graduate receives his diploma on stage during the commencement ceremony and then immediately leaves without waiting for the rest of his classmates to be recognized, let alone waiting for the ceremony to conclude. In this article, we will outline six suggestions to discourage graduates from leaving the commencement ceremony early.
A cautionary reminder: do not, under any circumstances, block, barricade, lock, or otherwise restrict any exit at your ceremony venue without the explicit permission of the Fire Marshall.
We cannot stress this enough; it would be far better for every graduate to walk out early than for even one exit to be blocked that could be needed in an emergency. This is a crime in most jurisdictions, ranging from a misdemeanor for the simple action of blocking an exit, up to criminal negligence charges should the unthinkable happen.
So to reiterate, if you are considering restricting access to one or more exit points at your commencement ceremony venue, please consult with the Fire Marshall first. With that understood, what are some schools and universities doing to encourage graduates to stay until the end of the commencement ceremony?
1. Before the ceremony, announce a "last call" for the restroom.
As graduates congregate in the staging area before the ceremony, be sure to make one final announcement encouraging graduates to use the restroom if they need to do so. This suggestion is particularly important because some graduates may be "somewhere in the middle" between needing to go and not, but are unsure as to whether or not they have time. Your announcement will therefore make this decision easier for them.
The amount of lead time for this announcement of course depends on the number of participants and number of available restrooms. However, 20 minutes before the start of the commencement ceremony is a good rule of thumb.
2. Use small cups for water.
In the staging area(s) prior to the ceremony, use small disposable cups if you offer water to the graduates. The larger the cups, the more water graduates will consume. You are merely trying to quench their thirst, not re-hydrate them from hard labor in the sweltering sun.
Next, although this is not an issue at most schools, the lesson is worth repeating: avoid serving diuretic beverages such as sodas and coffee. Water is perfect, and if you are feeling generous, then perhaps consider providing lemonade or juice.
3. Avoid the perimeter of the ceremony floor as graduates leave the stage.
Most graduates who leave early choose to "make their break" after being recognized on stage, while in line returning back to their seats. Depending on your ceremony venue and flow, consider a return route that will keep graduates away from the exits along the perimeter of the ceremony floor. It may not look as elegant to have graduates returning to their seats down a center aisle, but the more noticeable an early departure would be, the less likely a graduate will be to consider one. Therefore, as graduates are walking off the stage, a more visible path back to their seats may be preferred over one the audience is not likely to notice.
4. Work with the Fire Marshall to permit the disguise of exits with easily-movable objects.
Depending on your venue and the Fire Marshall's guidance, it may be feasible to place easily-movable objects such as flags or banners in front of prominent exits to discourage graduates from using them as departure points.
In the example above, flags representing the various departments of Middle Tennessee State University are positioned in front of one of the venue's exits. Those flags can immediately be removed in the event of an emergency. Again, as a commencement professional, it is your responsibility to consult with the Fire Marshall prior to doing anything to obstruct an exit.
4. Station a police officer or security guard at the exits during the commencement ceremony.
A security guard or police officer stationed at the exit points of the ceremony floor will not (read cannot) physically prevent a graduate from leaving early if he/she chooses to do so. After all, your ceremony is not a prison. However, graduates who want to leave are going to look for the path of least resistance. So by positioning an officer at an exit likely to be used for early departure, the graduate will naturally think, "Is he there to prevent me from leaving?" Yes, it is just an illusion, however it can be effective.
5. Distribute gifts to graduates for them to receive back at their seats.
At most commencement ceremonies, marshals will prompt graduates to stand and approach the stage one row at a time. After graduates from a given row have left for the stage and that row is now empty, have a second group of marshals (or other volunteers) place something on their empty seats for the graduates to receive after returning from the stage. Suggestions include:
- Diploma covers, if the actual diplomas are received on stage
- Free one-year membership to the school's athletic booster club
- Gift certificates from a local business
- Information packet from the alumni association
- Departing information from the school, such as how to request copies of transcripts.
- A gift from the school such as an ornament, lapel pin, etc. An example from UC Davis is below.
What makes this work is that the graduates seated in the the rows behind - who have not yet crossed the stage - are able to see the marshals placing something in the seats for graduates to receive when they return, and realizing that if they leave early, then they won't receive this gift.
With that said, unless the item is something of significant value that every graduate would want, such as a diploma cover, perhaps you might consider placing it in an unsealed envelope. (Unsealed will prevent the noise of dozens of envelopes being opened at the same time.) Also instruct marshals not to discuss the contents of the envelope with the graduates seated in the rows behind. Under most circumstances, the graduates seated in rows behind will have departed for the stage before having the opportunity see what was in their classmates' envelopes, and the mystery of walking away from that envelope will be enough to entice the students to return to their seats after being recognized on stage, instead of walking out of the venue.
6. Keep the ceremony length under control.
You may notice this is a recurring suggestion for how to handle some of the most frustrating problems at commencement. (Click here for our two-part series on this issue.) The longer the commencement ceremony, the more likely graduates will want to leave early.