Posted May 1, 2024

Go behind the scenes at Commencement

Read about the university staff working under the radar to ensure this capstone event sends students off in style and lets them know they’ll always be part of the Temple family.

a graduation cap in a crowd of caps
Photography By: 
Betsy Manning

At Temple, Commencement is more than just a single event conferring degrees on graduating students. The occasion marks the culmination of the work of the entire university community to fulfill Temple’s mission of educating a diverse study body and cultivating engaged citizens.

“Coming together as an institution to celebrate the graduating class is one of the most joyful events that we hold at Temple,” said Provost Gregory N. Mandel. “Students, faculty and staff across the university have committed significant energy and effort to arrive at this moment, and I am proud of our Temple community and all they have accomplished."

The universitywide ceremony kicks off the festivities by bringing the entire community together to recognize the graduates’ academic achievements officially. It’s a formal event with protocols and speeches, gowns and tassels, stoles and sashes, and mortar boards. In honor of the occasion’s significance, the president wears official regalia and dons the chain of office and the medallion. A choir performs the national anthem. The university marshal leads the academic procession with the ceremonial mace, a symbol of the academic quest for truth and wisdom. A script ensures the show stays on schedule.

“It’s a million moving pieces. And it’s rewarding when it all comes together; it’s 100% about the students.”
-- Jason Horst, assistant dean of communications and operations in the Center for the Performing and Cinematic Arts

Behind the pomp and pageantry, staff members from across the university start planning months in advance to give the graduating students a proper send off. Associate Vice President for Strategic University Events Betsy Leebron Tutelman has orchestrated Temple’s Commencement ceremonies for more than a dozen years, planning and overseeing pre-production, production and streaming aspects and coordinating with campus partners to ensure the celebration goes off without a hitch.

“This is a huge accomplishment for our students; some do it in three years and for some it takes 30, but no matter how long it takes, earning a college degree deserves celebration; recognition; and a moment for contemplation, pride and, just, awe,” said Tutelman. “That’s what we strive to provide our graduates with through Commencement.”

This year, the majority of the graduation ceremonies span three days—May 8, 9 and 10—on Main Campus. The School of Podiatry will celebrate earlier on May 6, while the Beasley School of Law will cap off the season on May 23. Several schools will hold their events off campus: the Katz School of Medicine will hold festivities at The Kimmel Center on May 10, Kornberg School of Dentistry will host graduation at the Academy of Music on May 17 and Temple University Japan’s celebration will take place May 17 in Tokyo.

Draw back the curtain on Commencement and you’ll find numerous staff members and even more volunteers coming together to put on the show.

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at Temple University’s Commencement.

Setting the stage
The first thing a visitor to campus on the day of Commencement might notice is how beautiful it is.

“Our campus always looks great in my opinion,” said Michael Juhas, senior director of operations and facilities management. “But for Commencement our crews in Housekeeping and Landscaping are really on top of their game.”

Leading up to the ceremony, the team power washes sidewalks, plants several kinds of flowers—including 300 red geraniums—turns on fountains, unfurls banners and hangs flags. They set up tables and chairs and lay flooring at various venues, positioning podiums, stage skirting and more where necessary—all to ensure that the campus provides an appropriate backdrop for sending off Temple’s graduates.

“When I step off of the train on the morning of Commencement and approach campus, I am filled with pride,” said Juhas. “It’s the best day of the year!”

Continuing a tradition
Planning begins in December to identify potential honorary degree recipients and a student speaker who will address the graduates. There have been 136 universitywide Commencement ceremonies at Temple University, with 2024 marking the 137th. At each one, Temple carries on a rich tradition of conferring honorary degrees to distinguished individuals whose values and accomplishments exemplify the university’s mission and ideals.

To date, Temple has awarded more than 900 honorary degrees. Recent recipients include Kevin Negandhi (2015), Cory Booker (2018) and Dawn Staley (2022). In 2014, the uplifting address to the graduates by honorary degree recipient, entrepreneur, philanthropist and Temple Trustee Lewis Katz, CST ’63, was named among the nation’s best Commencement speeches. This year, award-winning actress, writer, producer and showrunner Quinta Brunson and the late Charles L. Blockson, curator emeritus of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, will be recognized.

Other time-honored traditions include the singing of the alma mater and the ringing of the Bell Tower bells, an event which marks the beginning of a first-year student’s journey at Convocation and is meant to bookend the graduates’ experience at Temple.

Along with these traditions comes the university’s continuous attention to improvement, making sure each year’s marquee event meets or exceeds expectations. New for 2024: Boxed lunches are being offered for families who order in advance. And members of the Diamond Marching Band and Diamond Gems, along with faculty and staff, will greet those arriving on campus and cheer on the grads as they make their way to The Liacouras Center. As well, for the second year in a row, the Golden Owls—alumni who graduated 50 or more years ago—are invited to process with the graduates.

“We’re always trying to see where we can make changes that will have a positive impact and enhance the experience for our graduates and their guests,” said Tutelman.

Pawn to E2
Thanks to Angela Hoban, director of strategic university events, and her master plan, the key people around the university have the key information they need to handle the myriad little details that make the three-day event meaningful and successful.

It’s a yearlong process of organizing operational logistics, coordinating the efforts of groups across campus to bring cohesion to chaos and synergizing all the moving parts. No detail is too small. The strategic university events team handles everything from liaising with The Liacouras Center staff, external production crew members and control room operators to ensuring that the trustees, deans and members of the stage party have the proper regalia and line up to process in the correct order. They even refresh the flowers following the ceremony, so the arrangements look just as vibrant for the next group as they did for the first.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re playing an intense game of chess,” said Hoban. “But for all of us, it’s the highlight of the year. We get to help people celebrate a momentous occasion in their lives. We make memories.”

Once an Owl; always an Owl
Commencement day begins early for graduating students, who start lining up in their caps and gowns at 8:30 a.m. in the loading dock of The Liacouras Center to prepare to process into the arena.

Though it’s early, the site is bustling with activity. It’s a great time for last-minute selfies with friends. The graduates find their places in line, straighten their robes, admire each other’s decorated mortar boards and determine exactly which side their tassels should be on to start with—it’s the right.

Temple’s Advancement Engagement team sends numerous staff and volunteers to greet the newest graduates, passing out Temple Alumni lapel pins that symbolize the transition from student to alum.

“We try to have intentional touchpoints at important milestones along the students’ journey and graduation is the epitome of that,” explained Katie Sampson, executive director of alumni relations in Temple’s Office of Advancement Engagement. “We welcome the grads into the Temple University Alumni Association, making sure they know there are so many benefits to staying connected with the university.”

The integration of the Golden Owls was initiated by Institutional Advancement to celebrate alumni who graduated 50 or more years ago from Temple and foster an intergenerational connection among the alumni. Each wearing a golden sash, the Golden Owls process alongside the students. It’s a full-circle moment.

As well, Advancement Engagement sponsors a photo opportunity in Founder’s Garden following the universitywide ceremony where the newest alumni can learn about resources available to them post-graduation and how to keep in touch.

For Robert Stroker, the universitywide ceremony is the first of three ceremonies he attends in one day. As dean and vice provost for the arts, Stroker also presides over the graduation ceremonies for the School of Theater, Film and Media Arts and the Boyer College of Music and Dance, both held at Temple Performing Arts Center later that same day at 1:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., respectively.  

“It’s a long day, and my favorite of the year, seeing all of the students and their families, the faculty and the staff, all celebrating our students is an amazing experience,” said Stroker.

Holding the duo ceremonies in one day takes a village, explained Jason Horst, assistant dean of communications and operations in the Center for the Performing and Cinematic Arts. The team begins early in spring to talk through the details, get the speakers lined up and make sure the students know what they need to do.

The Commencement Band rushes across Broad Street to take their place in front of the stage at Temple Performing Arts Center. Advisors line the students up. The students write their names phonetically on index cards or even whisper to the speaker to ensure their names are pronounced correctly.

“It’s a million moving pieces,” he said. “And it’s rewarding when it all comes together; it’s 100% about the students,” said Horst.

Temple’s College of Engineering recently switched from holding its ceremony in Temple Performing Arts Center to McGonigle Hall.

“We were reaching a point where we were going to have to start limiting the number of guests that a graduate could invite,” explained Shawn Fagan, EDU ’19, assistant dean of undergraduate affairs at the College of Engineering.

“We have a lot of first-generation students—and I am a first-gen myself—so I know what a big day it is for these graduates and their families. Now, we are able to allow them to invite as many guests as they want. Some bring 20!”

A photo of each graduate is projected in McGonigle as they walk across the stage and have their name called.

“I’ve been in higher ed for 20 years and this is a day we all look forward to. We remember the students when they entered our college, and we watch them mature. It’s really special and deeply rewarding to see them recognized for officially earning their degrees,” Fagan added.

Conducting the parkestra
“My suggestion for everyone attending Commencement is: Allow extra time. If it normally would take you one hour to get to campus, leave yourself three.”

That’s the advice of Karen Sherlock, Temple’s senior director of parking services. Sherlock has worked at Temple for 35 years, with 33 in parking, and she has seen it all.

She’ll be the first to tell you that unforeseen circumstances inevitably crop up to throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans. But Sherlock ultimately prevails, in part due to the carefully constructed, color-coded parking plan aimed at minimizing congestion that she keeps at her fingertips over the three-day Commencement period.

Sherlock and her team assign spaces strategically so that graduates and their guests are given assignments near the buildings that are holding the events they’re attending. Her team is out on the streets from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. to make sure the more than 9,000 cars arriving on campus over the three days can park and depart seamlessly.

Employees with flags wave drivers toward their destinations, and barrier arm gates in garages and lots are kept in the UP position so vehicles can move directly to their spaces after drivers hand their passes to the guards.

Free parking is a perk the university extends to the community in celebration of the momentous occasion. Sherlock also ensures that plenty of ADA parking spaces are available and shuttle buses are on hand to help visitors get across campus easily.

“We are ambassadors to the university,” explained Sherlock.  “A visitor’s ability to arrive on campus, get where they need to go and depart with ease can make or break their experience. Hopefully, if they have a positive experience, they want to come back.”

Viewing from anywhere
For those interested in watching the ceremony from another location, the universitywide event is livestreamed at and translated into eight languages. It’s also carried live on TUTV, the university’s award-winning student-run cable TV station, and replayed at 6 p.m. More than 200 students work at TUTV over the academic year to produce and air both original programming and university events.

“Airing Temple’s Commencement fulfills an important aspect of our mission at TUTV to provide live coverage of significant university events,” said Paul Gluck, associate professor of media studies and production at Klein College of Media and Communication and general manager of TUTV.

A time for reflection
Perhaps more than anything else, Commencement is a time for everyone to look back at the years that brought them to this moment.

Tutelman’s team produces a four-year retrospective of photos and videos for each graduating class and plays it in The Liacouras Center as graduates and guests enter the arena and wait for the ceremony to start.

“It’s a time for students and families to reflect on their Temple journey and remember where they began and all they have accomplished to get where they are today,” said Tutelman. “A moment to soak everything in before moving on to the next stage.”


See how Temple's Department of Public Safety prepares for Commencement.