From hospitality to healthcare, volunteers and staff keep Commencement on track

A large team of staff, faculty, and students works throughout the year to insure that the campus’s happiest day runs smoothly and safely for all participants.
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The joyous celebration that is University Commencement doesn’t happen automatically: A large team of staff, faculty, and students — many of them volunteers — works throughout the year to insure that the campus’s happiest day runs smoothly and safely for all participants.

 “It’s the time at the university every year where we put our best face forward to the world, where we welcome about 18,000 guests to campus to celebrate the graduates,” says Heather Calabrese, director of communications and university events in the Office of the Secretary, who leads this support team and coordinates the activities of Commencement weekend events.

“We don’t want to be noticed”

Many of the most complex logistics of Commencement weekend are invisible to participants, and are designed to be so. To insure the safety and security of the students and attendees, a Yale and a coordinated team of Yale EMS, New Haven police, security, fire, and medical professionals are behind the scenes, ready to deal with any emergency that might arise.

“We don’t want to be noticed,” says Maria Bouffard, director of Yale’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). “We want people to come and just enjoy the day, but we are ready behind the scenes to quickly respond to emergencies as needed.”

During Commencement events on Old Campus — when the crowd can number up to 18,000 people — 14 OEM staff volunteers are stationed throughout the park. The OEM volunteers’ primary mission is to quickly signal the exact location of a medical emergency so that responders can find the spot quickly. The volunteers carry collapsible six-foot-tall flagsticks with bright red flags that can be easily spotted even within the vast Commencement day crowd.

A fully equipped and climate-controlled emergency medical tent is erected next to Street Hall to provide immediate care and on-site triage for patients who might need to be hospitalized. Two ambulances are stationed at the north and south ends of Old Campus, and the operation is staffed by a medical director from Yale Health and a team of emergency medicine specialists from Yale-New Haven Hospital.

From every department at the university

About 300 staff support the events of Commencement weekend, including 97 staff volunteers from throughout the university, and 75 student ushers.

“My favorite thing about the volunteers is that they come from every department at the university. They’re not necessarily acting as ambassadors or hosts in their normal role in the university, but for that one day they give of their time, and they really make an enormous contribution” says Calabrese.

Staff volunteers perform a wide variety of essential services during Commencement weekend and in the weeks leading up to the events. They staff the six hospitality stations around Old Campus and Woolsey Hall, providing directions, advice, and thousands of bottles of water to guests; guide honorary degree recipients and their families; hand out programs; help handicapped or frail guests to special seating and deaf and hard of hearing guests to locations where they can see the screens with sign language interpretation; and keep the flow of the various processions on time and clear of extraneous foot traffic.

“It’s the best day for everybody”

“What Commencement weekend and Commencement morning reminds us all is what we’re here for, and why we do the work we do every day and that’s to make sure that we create an environment and a place — a unified Yale — in which students can thrive and grow, be successful, and be happy, and that’s all on display Commencement morning,” says Calabrese.

Sandra Greer, senior staffing and career development specialist at Human Resources, has been volunteering at Commencement for decades. What she enjoys most is the exuberance of the day, she says. “It’s the people and the families. You know, mom and dad and the kids; everybody smiling. Even when it’s raining they’re smiling! And it’s the best day for everybody. It’s not just for the kids; it’s for the families, and it always turns out beautifully. I’ve never had a bad time, in over 20 years. It’s been wonderful.”

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