Behind the scenes at UAA's commencement
by J. Besl |
When Anchorage Community College hosted its first commencement at Anchorage High School (now West High School), the event's sole honoree, Mr. Vincent Earl Demarest, had the distinction of being the only member of the class of 1956. With four students, the class of 1957 officially quadrupled in size.
The class of 2014, for comparison's sake, includes over 2,400 graduates and is the largest in UAA's history.
As the campus, curriculum and classes have expanded over the years, so too has commencement. After West High, graduation moved on campus to Wendy Williamson Auditorium, then to the Sullivan Arena where it's been since the mid-1980s. With over 900 students walking at graduation this year, the event has stretched the limits of its current home and its time to upgrade again.
Starting this fall semester, graduation will return to campus at the new Alaska Airlines Center. Additionally, a December commencement will be added to accommodate the growing list of graduates. These major changes are just the latest in a long list of adjustments overseen by the commencement committee, including Mel Kalkowski-the stage manager of commencement exercises since the 1970s.
With a background in theater and a production résumé including Fur Rendezvous, the Great Alaska Shootout, and the Arctic Winter Games, Mel is well versed in staging major events. "Really this is a theater show when you get right down to it," he said of commencement.
As each graduate struts across the stage hoping not to trip over their flowing black gowns, Mel is up in the rafters, manning the sound booth and hoping they don't trip either.
"It's unusual to see any major glitch," Mel said, despite all the moving parts and people. The only major crisis happened the year someone left the ceremonial mace-carried in by the faculty marshal during the opening march-back in its secure safe on campus. The mistake was only noticed a half-hour before show time, forcing a speedy last-minute recovery mission back to UAA.
With commencement returning to campus, headaches like this will be eliminated; every tradition, banner, and podium will be stored across the street rather than across town. It will also remove variables most folks don't even consider-for example, when the Alaska Aces extend their season into the playoffs (like this year), it takes a full 12 hours to change over the ice rink at Sullivan Arena into a floor suitable for high heels and graduation gowns.
"Everyone is looking forward to moving onto campus," Mel said. "The logistics of moving all that stuff down there, getting all the people in place, it's a lot easier when you have your own building."
Commencement at UAA may seem like an inflexible tradition, with all its pomp and circumstance, but the event has changed nearly every year in response to both administrative requests and increasing class sizes.
Some changes affect only the program. Alumni who graduated under Chancellor Gorusch (1994-2004) may remember the faculty passing on a ceremonial 'lamp of knowledge,' which has since disappeared from commencement. Likewise, Chancellor Behrend's (1988-1994) affinity for bagpipes is no longer a part of the event. For a while, the commencement committee dropped green and gold balloons; now they drop confetti. "Balloons were great, except everybody stomped on them," Mel said.
Other changes are purely in response to the growing list of graduates. To increase floor space, the committee rotated the event 90 degrees and positioned the stage at the arena's goal line. To speed up the proceedings, they added a second reader to announce graduates' names. Later, they abandoned the tedious task of arranging students alphabetically. They've moved the hooding ceremony to the day before commencement and jettisoned the honorary degree speaker. Although the event still lasts several hours, it's a far more efficient production. "All these changes are because the thing keeps growing," Mel said. "The focus is not on large, long, big important speeches. It's on students and getting their degrees."
One thing that hasn't changed: Unlike other large universities, every UAA graduate at commencement still walks across the stage to the sound of their own name proudly echoing off the rafters.
Following commencement this year, the class of 2014 bids adieu to UAA, and UAA in turn said farewell to the Sully. "It will be a whole new way of doing business," Mel said of the big move to the Alaska Airlines Center. Mel, with nearly 40 years on staff at UAA, plans to take off from UAA soon as well... but not quite yet. He'll be stationed in the sound booth this December for the first commencement in its new home back on campus.
"Though at some point, I assume I get to retire," he joked.