Resources for Graduation Event Professionals

Commencement Spotlight: Linda Bekerian at Northeastern University

Editor's Note: Linda Bekerian is the Associate Director of Academic Ceremonies at Northeastern University in Boston, and the Past President for the North American Association of Commencement Officers. She is responsible for some very impressive and complex commencement ceremonies, with graduate participation in the thousands. This article highlights Linda, her role as the University's commencement director, and how she prepares for these special events.

Also, be sure to check out Linda's article on NAACO, which can be found here.

Northeastern University's Undergraduate Commencement Northeastern University's Graduate Commencement

Tell us about yourself.  What has been the evolution of your career with Northeastern University?  And in addition to your commencement responsibilities, what else does your job entail?

Linda Bekerian, Northeastern UniversityI was first hired at Northeastern in 1980 as a file clerk in the Financial Aid Office and shortly thereafter I moved into a staff assistant position. At that time, the Dean of Financial Aid was also the Commencement Chair and his entire staff supported Commencement in some way. I specifically provided event prep support year round to his assistant. After her decision to retire, she recommended me as her replacement, and in 1986 I was hired as the Commencement Coordinator. I left the university in 1988 after my second child was born and stayed home with my children until 1992 when I took a part time secretarial position at a nearby church. In December 1999, I received a call to see if I would be interested in assuming the position I had left at Northeastern, as my successor was now retiring. I accepted the position in January 2000.

The job, its responsibilities, and title have evolved greatly since 2000. Unlike many universities, Northeastern has a dedicated Commencement Office. While some may perceive this as a seasonal position, it is truly a full time, year round role, with little to no down time. In addition to the in-depth planning that goes into the five ceremonies for which I am accountable, my office also lends support and direction to the colleges and schools within the university in the planning of their individual academic ceremonies. We are responsible for the entire diploma production and distribution for all degrees conferred on each of the five conferral dates throughout year, as well as for degrees that are reinstated late and requests for replacement diplomas.

My membership in the North American Association of Commencement Officers (NAACO) has also greatly contributed to my professional career at Northeastern. It has provided me with resources I would not have easily found otherwise. I am able to connect with colleagues from all across North America who face similar challenges in the planning of academic ceremonies. NAACO provides the opportunity to share best practices, keep up with current trends, learn of service providers and products related to the planning, production and execution of academic ceremonies through networking, educational programs and forum communications. It has provided me with professional development opportunities, including committee participation and my roles as Conference Chair 2008, Treasurer/Board of Directors, and President/Board of Directors. Each of these opportunities further strengthened my communication and leadership skills, and as a result has afforded me the respect of my colleagues on and off campus.

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What takes places over the summer and into the fall in terms of commencement preparations?  Or is this period relatively quiet?

The summer is busy preparing for two ceremonies to be held in late August or early September: a graduate level ceremony for our school of business degree candidates and the President’s Convocation welcoming all new students to campus. We have another degree conferral at the end of September with no ceremony. October is busy with the diploma fulfillment for 1,200 graduates and with the preparation of opening our graduation application for the upcoming year. By November things begin to quiet down to a more manageable pace allowing us to work on outstanding projects. In January, we resume a full schedule which becomes more hectic each month, leading up to our main university ceremonies.

How many stakeholders are there for Northeastern University ceremonies?  In other words, how many administrators and members of the faculty have influence over the details of these events?  (Deans, provosts, presidents, etc.)

It depends on the ceremony. Typically the President, Provost, Sr. Vice President for University Advancement and Sr. Vice President for External Affairs and other members of our President’s senior leadership team have influence over the details for the University Commencement ceremonies and the Law ceremony. In regards to a college or school ceremony, the dean has control over most of the specifics of the ceremony.

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What about your staff or assistants?  How many people work under your direction to bring these events together?  What types of roles or responsibilities do they have both leading up to commencement, and the actual day-of?

Christina Pasquale is my administrative officer and we have additional support from an administrative assistant and a small crew of part-time students who help year round. We also hire seasonal help to ensure that diplomas are ready for the university ceremonies held in May. I report to Linda Allen, Assistant Vice President and University Registrar and Commencement Chair, and work closely with a small core of the Registrar’s team to ensure the successful distribution of diplomas at our ceremonies. We have a working committee which includes members from a wide span of offices on campus: President’s Office, Provost’s Office, Registrar’s Office, other key university departments and stakeholders, and an essential group of colleagues who serve as “captains” in the oversight of specific volunteer groups the day of the ceremony.

My office is responsible for the management of all logistical needs, diploma production, ordering and distribution of academic regalia, ticket management, volunteer and faculty recruitment (in conjunction with the Registrar’s Office), ceremony related communication to degree candidates and platform participants, vendor relations and management of services and products, including but not exclusive to AV, décor, photographers, rentals, security, medical staff, catering, permits, transportation and others, coordination of musical components, ceremony program, guest ticket production and distribution, commencement website, and web streaming. Members of the Commencement Committee and our university departments support many of the particulars of each of these components, specific to their role within the university. We have approximately 200 faculty volunteers and 150 staff volunteers who provide the much needed support the day of the ceremony.

When do things get really busy?  Or stated differently, when do you start to feel the stress of these ceremonies?

I’d say 8-9 weeks prior to the ceremony would mark my high stress period. It is the timeframe where everything is a priority; the time when all deadlines are converging and when follow-up is crucial in meeting these deadlines; it’s the time when new “plans” may be introduced and then need to be implemented. It’s the time when all interested parties are looking for more information and answers. Like many of my colleagues, I don’t have time to focus on the scheduled workload until the work day ends, when the phones quiet and there’s no foot traffic in the office. It makes for long days and nights but is essential in making sure all pieces are in place for the ceremony. Our ultimate and single most important goal is to have all in attendance to leave the ceremony feeling that it was truly a celebration of our graduates and the time and work they committed to achieving this great academic success. Post ceremony, I look forward to reviewing the photos taken because, it’s true, "a picture is worth a thousand words."

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Tell us a little bit about the final preparations that you and Northeastern University go through in the few weeks leading up to commencement.  Are there regular planning meetings?  What type of coordination do you have with the stakeholders and those reporting to you?  Give us an overview of how things really start to come together as we approach graduations at the University.

Our last committee meeting is usually held three weeks prior to the ceremony so that each member can bring the group up to speed on any new developments or concerns.  I meet or talk with Linda Allen, Commencement Chair, on a daily basis for the 2-3 weeks leading up to the ceremony.  I am also very fortunate to have a strong support group of colleagues who pitch in during this time.  They show up after their regular work day ends to help Christina and me with anything that is left on our checklist. 

The combined efforts of my diploma crew and my team members from the Registrar’s Office work to ensure that all diplomas are ready for the ceremonies.  Given that grades are due just one week prior to the ceremony, the final college is cleared by the Registrar’s Office on Wednesday afternoon, and the diplomas are scheduled for delivery to the ceremony venues on Thursday, this effort involves the highest level of teamwork.  It calls for more than manual labor, it necessitates a strong commitment of service to our graduates – you (GradImages) know the impact of receiving a diploma at the ceremony has on a graduate.  My favorite photos are those where the graduate has a cell phone in one hand and the diploma raised high in the other hand, and a huge smile on his/her face.

We hold two university commencement ceremonies on a single day, one at the TD Garden and one that immediately follows, back on campus.  The undergraduate ceremony boasts approximately 3,300 students who process in four consecutive files to receive their diploma, receive congratulations from their dean and have a photo taken – this portion of the ceremony takes just 45 minutes.  The graduate ceremony attendance hit a high of 1,500 students in 2014 and we use a two-file procession for this group.

As for the night prior to commencement, I have students, some who are currently working for me and some who have worked for me in the past but may be on a co-op assignment, who show up the night before commencement just to make sure I have everything ready. There are always last minute things that need attending to and my team has become experts at taking care of them: putting together my ceremony binder, helping me pack last minute supplies, answering phone calls that are still coming in, returning messages, cleaning up the office – really, anything and everything that needs to be done.

Northeastern University's upcoming commencement exercises will be on May 8, 2015.  Walk us through what you’ll be going through on that day.  Do you have a routine?

There is a select group of us who will show up at the TD Garden no later than 6 AM.  We walk the space and make sure that things are in place for the other volunteers who will arrive by 7 AM.  The Registrar’s Office team ensures that “commencement central” is ready for the arrival of our graduates. They are responsible for lining up 3,300 students by college, degree and alpha order in a very limited space.

I check in with each of my group captains to make sure they are all set.  I then head to the stage which serves as my "command post."  I’ve learned that I can’t be everywhere at all times so by remaining in a single area and by being connected to all of my team via radios, I can effectively answer questions and troubleshoot issues as they arise.  I give a big sigh of relief once the platform party is seated and the ceremony officially begins. I love our ceremony. It is very traditional but it has some nice personal touches which have a great emotional impact. I’m incredibly proud that we distribute diplomas at our ceremony and the efficiency of the process. Our University Cadre lead the faculty marshals in directing the graduates to the diploma stations in each of the four files and then back to their seats. The Registrar’s Office team ensures that students are filing in and back in order – easy enough for the students seated on the floor, but a far greater challenge for those students who are seated in the five sections off of the floor. We have two team members at each of the four stations to hand out the diplomas and at least one lead person, myself, Linda Allen and Christina Pasquale included, to ensure that the entire process runs smoothly and in a timely fashion. Our ceremony consistently runs 2 – 2 ¼ hours which allows us barely enough time to get back to campus for the arrival of students for our graduate level ceremony. My team and I are the last to leave the TD Garden and arrive at our campus venue, Matthews Arena. Once there, we do it all over again! Our day finally ends at approximately 6 PM. It’s a day full of emotions that run from stress to exhilaration to relief. It’s a day where you appreciate the commitment and dedication of colleagues who step up each year to offer you support.

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What’s changed over the years?  How have commencements “evolved” over your tenure at Northeastern University?  What’s different?  And is there anything on the horizon that might be changing in the future?

We have a very traditional ceremony and many of the changes over the year have been subtle to the eye though not necessarily subtle in the implementation. A few years back we changed our invocation from being offered by a single spiritual adviser to a multi-cultural group; we’ve added brief video(s) to our ceremonies that highlight our students, graduates and the university; we now provide electronic guest tickets for some of our ceremonies; we use sustainable regalia for our graduates, we’ve implemented social media at some of our ceremonies.  Our attendance rate has evolved and grown each year (93%+ student attendance rate for our undergraduate ceremony; and our graduate ceremony student attendance has grown 20% since 2010) which requires us to continually address the challenges of time and space – neither of which we have a great deal of control over.

What’s the strangest, funniest, or most interesting thing you’ve seen at a commencement?  Or, is there something you’ve ever done (planning or execution wise) and immediately thought, “I’ll never do that again!”?

As far as funny goes, nothing really comes to mind; and you just manage or roll with “strange” things that come up.  However, I do traditionally experience the same “commencement” nightmare as we hit the peak stress time of the year. I dream that I’ve forgotten the regalia for the entire platform party and there is no line-up sheet for them. Though it’s never happened, it is nonetheless quite disconcerting when I wake up.

I think any of us who have missed something, rarely do it again. Early in my career I forgot to put the honorary degrees on stage.  Fortunately, our President was quick minded and when it came time for him to present the degree to the first recipient, he pulled a copy of the program from the podium, and presented it as if it were a degree cover, displaying only the university seal from the back cover. It worked perfectly for the photos - though I did move quickly to get the other degrees in place before the next presentation. I made sure I had a “day of” checklist the following year.

Topics: Commencement Preparations Personal Stories