commencementThe 2014 graduating College class is the biggest in Saint Mary’s history, topping out at 763 (last year’s was 670). And there are more than 550 graduate students collecting diplomas as well. That means more parents, grandparents, siblings and children crowding onto campus, renting a total of 84 plots (the max), and filling the stadium on Commencement Weekend, May 24-25.

But Commencement Chair Bill Sullivan is ready. He has rented 4,200 chairs, printed 7,000 programs, expanded the stage to 120 by 20 feet, and doubled the size of the disabled access stage. And Saturday’s processional will start 15 minutes earlier to allow time for the extra 90 students to file in.

Sullivan, who has worked at 10 commencements (and attended 12) in his 14 years at Saint Mary’s, has aimed this year––his first as chair––to turn the annual graduation weekend into a more memorable experience.

“We need to treat commencement as a celebration, as our signature event on campus,” Sullivan said. “It’s a major opportunity to shine a light on Saint Mary’s, to get our message out to the community. How do we raise the bar?”

First the Commencement Steering Committee packaged the two-day event as Commencement Weekend, combining the undergraduate and graduate ceremony information into a single web page. They also started communicating monthly with students through a new online newsletter called Marching to Commencement, which has proved more effective than email, Sullivan said.

On the big day itself, speakers will address graduates and their families through a state-of-the-art sound system, and the Glee Club, with its full 30 members, will open and close the ceremony with songs like the catchy “Guide My Feet.” Also, for the first time, the Invocation will be given by a graduating senior, winner of the Brother Mel Anderson, FSC Mission and Ministry Award.

And of course, undergraduate Commencement speaker Leon Panetta, chairman of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, and former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director for President Barack Obama, will anchor this year’s event. Business Leader James R. Quandt ’71 speaks at the Graduate School ceremony.

The College hopes to attract more high-profile speakers like Panetta who are aligned with the Saint Mary’s mission, said Sullivan. He has already launched a committee that will begin meeting in June to put together a wish list of speakers.

Other goals for future Commencements include streaming the ceremony live, awarding honorary degrees, and featuring the Saint Mary’s Jazz Band, Sullivan said.

And Sullivan’s favorite part of the big weekend? “I love the energy, how happy the students are,” he said. “It’s not only the end of their journey here, but the beginning of another.”

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