People Moving People

June 17, 2002

Nick Marinello
Phone: 865-5714

Commencement is a verb--a thing in constant motion. While most in attendance at this year's graduation ceremony were aware of only the orderly starts and stops of the on-stage ritual, there was plenty of unseen action both backstage and outside the Superdome as Tulane volunteers guided degree candidates, faculty and families in a finely tuned, if fragile, movement.

"We have a potential of 2,200 graduates from 10 schools and colleges," says Billie Banker, who is the executive assistant to the president and the person in charge of coordinating the commencement procession. Typically, about 1,300 degree candidates actually attend the ceremony, and getting them from the upper levels of the Superdome, where they gather and dress, to the stadium floor is a bit like negotiating rush-hour traffic.

"We have to work the numbers," says Banker, noting that the candidates need to enter the seating area through four entrances. Unlike an unruly rush-hour dash, dignity and decorum must prevail. Schools must enter in a certain order at a certain time. Newcomb College, which typically seats 400 degree candidates, has its own entrance and its own section on the floor. The business school enters and shares a section with the medical school and social work.

Tulane College and the engineering school are partners, as are the schools of architecture, law and public health, which sit with candidates from the graduate program and University College. Before the audience ever sees this multidisciplinary mix file onto the floor, volunteers have carefully walked them through a spiral of Dome passageways and have them poised at the correct entrance.

They have coordinated the school gonfalons to the appropriate groups, have given out instructions on what to do when the ceremony is over, and have kept the long lines of groups from getting tangled. This will be the fourth year that Banker and her "procession team" of 32 volunteers have tackled the super-duper assignment of leading an orderly queue through one of the world's largest indoor stadiums.

"We do it differently every year," says Banker. "We'll keep tweaking it until we get it perfect." Still, something can always go wrong. One year a volunteer line leader got lost and had to radio for help. Another year, graduates at three entrances were ready to proceed while the members of the remaining group were off somewhere backstage. If it's not a difficulty getting down to the stadium floor, it's a hassle to leave it, as it was last year, when misguided Dome security prevented one school from proceeding along the route to its diploma ceremony scheduled in an upstairs room.

Once the ceremony is over, the party is just beginning outside the Superdome, where as many as 15 buses are available to shuttle graduates and their families to school and college ceremonies taking place at the Municipal Auditorium and Mahalia Jackson Theater or back on the uptown campus. Kelly Venable Carroll, assistant director of auxiliary services, estimates that more than 1,600 people use this service on commencement day.

Carroll coordinates the shuttle service, as well as hotel rooms for visiting families and friends. The shuttle service, which consists of 15 buses running two continuous loops between the Dome and both the uptown campus and the Municipal Auditorium, begins commencement day at 7:15 a.m. from the Diboll Complex.

"The early start is for any faculty who want to take it for the breakfast held at the Dome," says Carroll. According to Carroll, while the campus-to-Dome shuttle service runs until 6 p.m., the majority of buses are needed to move the thousands of people between the unified and breakout ceremonies, and then eventually get them back to their cars.

Last year, Carroll had coordinated volunteers to ride every bus to ensure that each graduate and his or her family were on the right bus to their breakout ceremony at the Morial Convention Center. This year, volunteers waited for graduates and families in front of the buses to make sure they boarded the correct ones. And while guiding the masses presents one kind of challenge, guiding the few presents another.

"The hardest thing is to predict peoples' patterns of movement," says Carroll. Carroll puts together all the possible scenarios for travel to and from commencement in order to have an effective game plan. "I need to make sure that even if it is one or two people, that they are not waiting for a shuttle bus that is not coming."

Nick Marinello may be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000