Behind the Scenes of NC State’s First Virtual Commencement Ceremony
NC State University Class of 2020 Virtual Commencement was a collaborative effort on behalf of multiple NC State units. This article highlights the contributions of Enrollment Management and Services (EMAS), the Division of Academic and Student Affairs (DASA), Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA), the Office of Information Technology (OIT), University Communications and Marketing (UCOMM), and University Theatre. For a full list of special thanks, visit https://virtual.commencement.ncsu.edu/ceremony-details.
Across NC State’s diverse student body, every student shares one common goal: graduation.
Whether you’re an undergraduate or a doctoral candidate, graduation marks years of hard work and the beginning of a brand new journey. NC State students reach graduation ready to take on new adventures and challenges with the strength of the Wolfpack behind them.
Most years, graduation is honored with fanfare as students pack PNC Arena to turn their tassels and celebrate with peers, family and friends. But, like most things in 2020, commencement was different last year. With COVID-19 still surging in December, we couldn’t gather and we couldn’t cheer together.
So in the fall, a cross-campus effort began to create NC State’s first-ever virtual commencement ceremony. Keeping in mind that COVID-19 was just a small sliver of each graduate’s journey, the ceremony would have to rightfully celebrate not only the great challenges that the NC State Class of 2020 endured in their final year of study, but also the entirety of the NC State student experience.
“[Our goals were] to honor the class of 2020 as best as we could given the circumstances; to still showcase traditional elements like the commencement address, student speakers, and the conferring of degrees; to add in meaningful elements that addressed the challenges faced this year and how the class of 2020 overcame them; to still do whatever we could to make it special for graduates and their families and friends,” says Jessica Bronchick, assistant registrar for communication.
“As a team, we reflected back on the in-person graduation ceremonies and thought about what three words we would use to describe commencement. For example, I came up with recognition, celebration and reflection,” adds Stacey Davey, executive assistant for EMAS.
It was a robust effort that called for support from across the university. Leading the effort was EMAS, the unit usually in charge of facilitating the main commencement ceremony at PNC Arena twice each year. This year, they initiated the collaborative effort to bring commencement online and into the homes of graduates and their families.
In addition to electing the two student speakers, Brendan Roess and Chloe Whealan, and sending regalia to honorary degree recipient and commencement speaker Christina Koch, EMAS had a long list of responsibilities ahead of them. Writing the script, coordinating assets and timelines, providing content to an external production company, arranging shooting locations and approving the final product were just a few key items.
According to Brantley Atkinson, associate director of marketing and communications for EMAS, scheduling was a major challenge, which is why they chose to partner with so many different divisions and colleagues. EMAS required support to film and edit all of the shots that needed to be collected. Without a studio or the sound and video equipment necessary for such a large production, they relied on DELTA’s studios and equipment, DASA’s nimble editing team and University Communications’ larger creative team.
“We couldn’t have pulled off the virtual commencement without our colleagues. We worked with almost every department on campus. Without the assistance of UCOMM, DELTA and other marketing and communications staff across campus, we wouldn’t have been able to execute what we did in two months’ time,” says Davey.
DELTA’s Instructional Media Production (IMP) team, composed of Associate Director John Gordon, Associate Producer Michael Castro and Media Production Specialist Derek DeStefano, contributed a wide range of services. In partnership with Operations and Event Manager for Stewart Theatre Andrew Korhonen and the Stewart Theatre staff, IMP recorded elements such as the chancellor’s and deans’ videos. Castro and DeStefano captured greenscreen footage in DELTA’s studio, and Interactive Media Producer Emily Vanaman of UCOMM edited the footage alongside Atkinson, ensuring high-quality sound and visuals.
IMP and the Stewart Theatre production team collaboratively designed the set at Stewart Theatre to look similar to what would be on the stage at PNC Arena, including the banners and flowers that are on display at every traditional commencement ceremony. The team used wireless microphones, cameras and monitors to ensure a safe set with enough room to physically distance. They also took precautionary measures by wearing masks and limiting the number of people in the room.
Even though IMP continuously prepares for the possibility of last-minute projects like this one, Gordon compared the experience to “building a plane while you’re flying it.”
“I wrote the opening poem ‘We Are Ready’ for the event, which was read by students. I was commissioned to write it independent of my role at the Libraries. The commencement team asked me because I am the Poetry Fox, not knowing that I also worked for NC State,” he says.
The poem was conceived as a way to set the emotional tone for the whole ceremony and to emphasize the accomplishments of graduates over their entire NC State experience — not just the particular challenges of finishing during COVID. Working through edits with the commencement team, they found that the theme of “readiness” resonated even stronger than the theme “resilience.” They knew this class would be ready to face whatever comes their way in the world beyond NC State.
Who better to read the poem than NC State students? Digital Media Specialist Ross Joyner, alongside the rest of the marketing and communications team at DASA, worked with students to bring it to life.
“We drew a lot of direction from EMAS and tried to base a lot of our filming off what DELTA had done to make sure that what we created fit and felt a part of the ceremony while being filmed by a whole different team,” he says.
With Dec. 4 getting closer, the departments were also ready to face the challenges that still remained. The group encountered many along the way — time constraints, financial constraints, public reactions and the overall uncertainty and constantly changing nature of COVID-19.
A major obstacle was securing the bandwidth for hosting the live-streamed ceremony on university servers, given a large expected viewership. The Office of Information Technology worked closely with EMAS to make adjustments and monitor the event so that this wasn’t an issue.
Identity and Web Services Manager Billy Beaudoin says the technical design was very different from the services OIT normally provides, and he’s appreciative that EMAS took their advice on an appropriate solution even though it was new to them.
“The site was continuously monitored by Charles Brabec, Matt Fields and Billy Beaudoin to ensure that users didn’t experience any issues. Contingency plans were discussed and agreed upon in case we started seeing any performance issues. There was a chat window with Angela Brockelsby, Louis Hunt and another one with the external vendor to continuously monitor the performance. Overall, a substantial amount of time and effort was put in to ensure a smooth virtual commencement,” adds IT Director Abraham Jacob.
But the biggest challenge was time. The team had limited hours to plan and execute the event. It was especially complicated to schedule time for filming because of physical distancing guidelines, the occasional need to film remotely, technology issues, and limited access to university spaces.
Atkinson says teamwork was critical to overcoming these challenges.
“As one of the core crew assigned to this project, I could not have done any of it without our great partnerships. The willingness to assist in any way, at the drop of a hat, shown by DELTA, DASA, University Theatre and UCOMM saved the day. The more silos we break down, the more grand projects we embark on, the better we will be for it. This was a prime example of what we can accomplish together at the university when we pull resources.”
After months of near-constant planning, prepping and shooting, the NC State class of 2020 graduated on Friday, Dec. 4. The ceremony showcased the hard work and determination of everyone involved from beginning to end, but most importantly, it gave the newest group of NC State alumni a proper conclusion to their journeys. The people who worked to make it possible could not be prouder of them.
“I think we hope that above all, they were able to remember how special their time at NC State was and feel that it was a meaningful send-off. Secondary to that is that we hope they know and recognize how much this university cares about them and believes in them, and how proud of them every single person who worked on this event is,” says Bronchick.
“I hope that graduates felt reconnected to campus, to their classmates and professors, and to the university as a whole. And I hope that they felt as much of a swell of pride as possible — they certainly earned it,” adds Vitiello.
Congratulations to #NCState20! Relive the best moments of the NC State University Class of 2020 Commencement at https://virtual.commencement.ncsu.edu/.