Commencement-the biggest party in town

How do you plan the commencement ceremony for the largest graduating class in Portland State history?

How do you plan the commencement ceremony for the largest graduating class in Portland State history?

That is the question J.R. Tarabocchia, coordinator of commencement and student affairs outreach, faced this year when planning the June 13 event that will award over 5,000 students their degrees and certificates.

An experienced commencement organizer, Tarabocchia is in his third year as the maestro behind the scenes of the graduation ceremony, and the enormity of the event seems only to encourage him.

“It’s definitely the best job on campus,” he said. “To see people at their best is a very rewarding feeling. Commencement signifies four, five, six, seven or more years of work, money and time. Everybody’s in a great mood, and the energy in the arena is just awesome.”

Organizing and assembling the many parts that go into commencement, though, is no easy task. From reserving the Rose Garden Arena and arranging for the delivery of more than 2,000 chairs and 10,000 programs, to serving as a liaison between the university and the graduates and their families about what they can expect, Tarabocchia juggles his duties with relative ease.

According to Tarabocchia, there are two sides to organizing Portland State’s commencement ceremony. First, there is the process of educating the students about the event and getting them to come to participate in the ceremony.

“We work with Office of Degree Requirements very closely, because a student has to be actually finishing their degree in order to walk in the ceremony,” he said. “So we work to make sure that communication gets sent out to students, that they know they are close to graduating.”

As part of this process, Tarabocchia also answers questions that students and family members have about the event itself.

“We have a big population of first-generation students here, and they don’t know what to expect; their families don’t know what to expect,” he said. “We help them understand that this is kind of a big party. It’s a big deal. It’s important.”

Students generally ask questions about the specifics of the event, Tarabocchia said, but sometimes they end up taking on an entirely different tone.

“Other times we get really funny questions like, ‘Where do I get my toga?'” he said. “Well, it’s not a toga, it’s your cap and gown—your regalia.”

Another humorous question that Tarabocchia recalled came after he sent out an email regarding graduating with Latin honors.

“So that’s if you’ve earned cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude,” he said. “And some student wrote back: ‘I don’t know why I’m getting this, I’m not Latin.'”

The other side to the commencement coin is the actual event-planning aspect.

“That’s calling to get contractors to make sure we have a sound system, to make sure we have chairs for the platform party,” Tarabocchia said.

This logistical side of the planning process is where the smallest detail can make or break the event. Flowers must be ordered and delivered within specific times, programs must be created, printed and delivered, ramps to make certain portions of the arena wheelchair accessible must be rented and a closed captioning service must be implemented.

The minutest of details—down to how the staff at the Rose Garden Arena should tear the admission tickets—are planned beforehand to ensure the guests have an enjoyable experience.

For Tarabocchia, planning the commencement ceremony doesn’t just begin in the weeks or months prior to the ceremony. “It’s an ongoing thing,” he said.

“Conceivably, somebody could start this only a few months beforehand, but that would be their full-time job, and this isn’t the only thing I do at the university.”

In true Portland State form, Tarabocchia has incorporated sustainable practices in planning the commencement ceremony. In years past, organizers ordered decorative flowers in line with the school’s colors that had to be flown in from afar. Now, local flora is used to decrease the ceremony’s carbon footprint.

The “greening” of commencement does not stop there. According to Tarabocchia, there are now 1,000 fewer commencement programs made, and the ones that are printed are made with post-consumer recycled paper. Further cutting the paper-related waste of the ceremony is the move to electronic means of communicating with students about commencement.

“The post office may not like it,” Tarabocchia said. “But we’re saving paper.”