Behind the scenes at commencement

J.R. Tarabocchia works in Portland State’s Dean of Students Office. He has a desk. It has a computer. And it has a host of files and folders that most would believe constitutes as work.

J.R. Tarabocchia works in Portland State’s Dean of Students Office. He has a desk. It has a computer. And it has a host of files and folders that most would believe constitutes as work.

But the work Tarabocchia does as the coordinator of commencement for Portland State is more analogous to setting up a 5-year-old’s birthday celebration than dealing with normal hassles of college administration. However, that does not exactly mean his work is easy.

Tarabocchia is basically a party planner, acting as the maestro at the center of a complicated web comprising all of the minute details necessary to execute a celebration with upwards of 25,000 guests. 

But even with the numerous stressors inherent to pulling off such a feat, the 6-foot-10, shaggy-haired Tarabocchia handles the job with a blasé air, proving to be confident that no matter what or how many issues sprout up the party will go on.

Here is a look at five things every party, even Portland State’s most important one, needs to be successful.

Leaning back in his office chair, Tarabocchia trolls through a seemingly infinite Microsoft Excel spreadsheet containing a number of wide-ranging items.

Among the 81 items there are little tasks like “get a headshot of the speaker,” “set up a meeting with OPB” and “order honor cords.”

Tarabocchia created the massive to-do list when he assumed the position on Feb. 1, after serving as a member of Portland State’s Student Legal and Meditation Services since October 2007.

The main function of the job is coordinating the varied roles individuals hold around campus to ensure the commencement ceremony unfolds as planned and contracting companies to provide all the necessary supplies and services.

Among countless other responsibilities, this includes making sure that the box office hands out tickets, faculty members volunteer, diploma covers are stuffed with the proper documents and the Rose Garden is contracted for the big bash.

Venue and supplies
Without a venue large enough to accommodate thousands of students and faculty members and then an additional 20,000 family and friends, commencement would not be possible.

With that said, it is clear that securing the Rose Garden is one of the biggest chips that must fall into place.

Portland State Chief Fiscal Officer Dan Valles said that renting out the arena for commencement costs about $50,000, which will be offset by $25,000 to $27,000 in revenue from DVD sales and a cut from regalia supplier Jostens.

The total cost of the event is about $110,000, Valles said, and includes a number of supplies that those who attend the roughly two-hour event likely overlook.

Tarabocchia decided to enlist the help of students and local businesses more this year than for previous commencement ceremonies.

“I would rather give money to on-campus groups than sending it outside, especially when the quality is just as good or better,” Tarabocchia said.

Among the student-produced or local aspects are the commencement reminder cards and posters that the Graphic Design Center created, the music from the Portland State Symphony Orchestra and flowers from Gifford’s Flowers near campus.

In addition to the emphasis on buying local, Tarabocchia said that nearly $4,000 is being saved from printing a few thousand less programs, using post-consumer material for the tickets and sending commencement announcements only via e-mail.

Guest list 
Almost 6,000 applications for graduation were completed this year, and two faculty members working in the Office of Degree Requirements were responsible for verifying that those students who applied are eligible to graduate.

Pam Wagner is one of them. A DARS coordinator, Wagner works alongside Angela Garbarino throughout this tedious process, which she has done for the last 18 years.

Wagner said that she and Garbarino spend around 10 hours paring down the commencement guest list. The duo must check every letter of every graduate’s name and hometown to verify the correct spelling.

“Your eyes start to shut and you have to walk around between [sessions],” Wagner said. “After the first 500 or so people you have to look at something else for a while.”

Regardless of whether the party is for toddlers or college graduates, some form of music is a must.

Heeding the request of President Wim Wiewel, Tarabocchia worked with Portland State Symphony Orchestra Music Director Ken Selden to make sure the Rose Garden is filled with the group’s sweet melodies come commencement.

“He’s a music lover,” Selden said of Wiewel with a smile. “We’re very excited about it. It’s the first time we’ll be playing at commencement. It’s a chance for the school to hear the orchestra.”

The orchestra will play traditional graduation music, including Johannes Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture,” Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” and “Triumphal March” from Aïda Giuseppe Verdi.

The entire orchestra boasts 40–50 students, however, Selden is unsure how many will perform for commencement. In addition to the student performers, a handful of faculty members will join the orchestra.


Even after all the contracts are signed, speakers are selected, tickets are distributed, regalia are purchased and chairs are set up on the Rose Garden floor, Portland State’s biggest party cannot go on without some helping hands.

Tarabocchia said that early on he established that the goal was to get 210 faculty members registered for commencement. Less than two weeks before the ceremony, 220 faculty members had already registered, almost 50 more than last year’s 177.

This figure represents three faculty groups, including marshals, those who hood doctorate students and others that show their support as spectators.

Volunteers come from a multitude of departments around the university. Becki Ingersoll, who works in the Undergraduate Advising and Support Center, has pitched in at commencement several times and will again this year.

“It’s my job to make sure we don’t have a completely lopsided assortment,” Ingersoll said in reference to the floor seating.”

She believes that many faculty members opt to assist with commencement because it brings the process of teaching students full circle.

“I think the reason why you see a lot of people from Student Affairs getting involved is because it’s an opportunity for us to see the fruits of our labor,” Ingersoll said. “That’s the highlight of my year—to see someone I helped along graduate.”