May 5, 2011

Commencement 2011

Volunteers handle sea of moving parts

By Margie Fishman

Over the past decade, Commencement volunteer Dawn Francis-Chewning has made an exception to her "anti-morning-person" stance to rise before dawn. She surveys the Quadrangle. For the briefest of moments, everything is still.

Surrounded by thousands of empty chairs, a soft breeze at her back, the lead business analyst for University Technology Services takes a few deep, cleansing breaths.

"It's the serene lull before the storm," she says.

On Monday, May 9, an estimated 15,000 students and their guests will participate in Emory's 166th Commencement. Joining them will be more than 200 volunteers, many donning signature straw hats, who will direct and seat guests and generally preside over "organized chaos," according to Chief Marshal Larry Taulbee.

The sea of chairs, precisely positioned on the Quad in an intricate layout to achieve maximum visibility, is thanks to the help of volunteer "chair wranglers," responsible for setting up and breaking down all 15,000 chairs.

The Office of University Events and other organizers have worked hard to optimize the Commencement experience for visitors, who will stream in from around the world to watch their friend or family member graduate.

"We think of Commencement as 15,000 people collected together for one purpose, but for each family it is a very personal experience," says Michael Kloss, executive director of the Office of University Events. "Their world revolves around that graduate."

Throughout the day, volunteers hailing from all corners of the University tirelessly work behind the scenes to manage the flow of people and the ceremony. They escort the elderly and those with mobility impairments to their seats, calm late students rushing across campus half-robed, and troubleshoot problems, such as reuniting lost family members, serving as family photographers, and giving directions to every possible campus destination.

Order on the Quad

Joining the graduates will be more than 200 volunteers, many donning signature straw hats, who will direct and seat guests.

Joining the graduates will be more than 200 volunteers, many donning signature straw hats, who will direct and seat guests.

Taulbee, associate professor of political science, will for the second year lead the processional of University trustees, officials and honorary degree recipients to the wail of bagpipes. As deputy university marshal for 11 years, he worked closely with his long-serving predecessor, physicist Ray DuVarney.

The most demanding job on Commencement morning, according to Taulbee, belongs to William Size, deputy university marshal for Emory College and professor of environmental studies, along with eight other volunteers. Their task: Put 1,200 college graduates in alphabetical order in less than an hour.

Commencement as homecoming

Commencement was a blur for Amanda Penn when she graduated from Emory College in 2004. Now a volunteer manager for Commencement and senior human resources associate in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, she sprints around the Quad, redeploys volunteer staff when a student lineup is coming undone, and reunites family members after unscheduled bathroom breaks. A few years back, she had to escort off campus two enterprising women who decided to sell flowers, teddy bears and copies of (the free) Emory Wheel.

By 4 p.m., Penn is usually ready to collapse.

"Everybody is a good pinch hitter," she says. "They just jump in and do what needs to get done."

Francis-Chewning fondly recalls her own Emory College Commencement in 1979, when a kind volunteer let her mother move closer to the stage.

"I never knew who it was, but it always was in my mind that somebody let my mom get the picture she always wanted," she says.

Later, she successfully campaigned for a designated parents' photography section at Commencement. This year, Francis-Chewning plans to volunteer for the University ceremony before switching to parent mode for her graduating son, Haynes Chewning, during the College festivities. Her other two children are graduating from Druid Hills High School and Georgia State University within one week of Emory's Commencement.

"Emory is a little world unto itself," she says. "Commencement is a wonderful, enriching experience."

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