Donna Peterson and running the show

There was the year a student did a cartwheel across the stage. The time someone handed over a baby during the ceremony. Oh, and don’t forget the year there was a streaker.

If there’s one person who vividly remembers convocations past, it’s Donna Peterson. Entering her 10th year as convocation director, the kinesiology professor looks forward each year to playing a major role in what she sees as one of the top celebrations on campus.

“We’re all expected to do teaching, research and service,” says Peterson, who’ll retire at the end of the month following 40 years of teaching. “For me, it’s the biggest celebration the university throws, and it is the most important day for the students and their families. I think if you’re going to enjoy convocation, it’s more fun to be involved than sit and watch. That’s how I got started.”

For Peterson, that goes back to 1982, when she began as an assistant marshal. From there came marshal, esquire bedell (the person who carries the mace) and then assistant convocation director in 1992.

“Sitting and watching was okay, but I found out I could be assistant marshal and talk with the students and that was a bonus to see some of the students I had taught and at times have the opportunity to meet the parents,” she says.

As director, Peterson also chairs the convocation board, the convocation planning committee and sits on the honorary degree committee. So why would a full-time faculty member take on such a volume of responsibilities outside the classroom?

For Peterson, it’s a no-brainer.

“That’s how you really learn about your campus community,” she says. “You also learn about the different parts of the university the more you get involved. Nowadays there is pressure to produce research and grants, and many don’t see the value (of service participation).

For the spring convocation, it’s an ongoing process. First, organizers need to find out who is graduating, which is the responsibility of the Office of the Registrar. They determine who is eligible; ask the students if they want to participate in the ceremony; and prepare the list attendees see in the program.

Eventually, these lists go to the chief public orators and marshals to ensure they are in the correct order to make it look “as if the students simply come across the stage magically.”

But sometimes getting the students lined up alphabetically isn’t as easy as one might think.

“You’d be amazed to know how many students do not know what degree they’re getting,” Peterson laughs. “Well what faculty are you in? We’ve even had some who are not quite too sure about that. Have you not been here for four years?”

For Peterson, a typical convocation day starts at around 7 a.m. when she begins to set up Alumni Hall in preparation for the 10 a.m. ceremony. At noon, following the morning ceremony, she’s back at work preparing for the 3:30 p.m. ceremony.

“It’s sort of like a putting on two shows per day,” says Peterson, who as director is in charge of the chancellor’s party. With the marshal corralling the students over in Thames Hall, the assistant director and assistant marshal act as the go-betweens to keep things running smoothly.

Ensuring the orchestra is prepared and ready to go, making sure the ushers are aware of the convocation protocol, confirming the hooders know how to properly complete their task are also adding to the long list of responsibilities.

But with a solid core of volunteers – whom she says convocation wouldn’t happen with out them – there are no worries of anything being missed.

“Most of us have a pretty good idea of to what the others responsibilities are, so if I missed something and someone else went ahead and did it, I wouldn’t be offended in the slightest,” Peterson says. “It’s not a big ego trip for any of us. If they need us to shine shoes, we shine shoes.”

So how has Peterson made it through so many convocation ceremonies – 130 as director and almost 400 in total – and still come out smiling? While always a professional on stage, admittedly there has been laughing along the way, particularly when it gets to the last few ceremonies of the week.

“By Friday, we’ll get giggling,” Peterson says. “Over the years we’ve watched the hooders and how many different ways people can screw it up, even though you give them instructions. We’ll watch shoes for fashion; try to figure out if so-in-so married so-in-so, what would their last name be. … We’ll get laughing at that.”

Although retiring, Peterson has agreed to stay on as director of convocation for the next two years. While she likely feels it’s because it’s hard to find a replacement, another part of her likely doesn’t want to stop being a part of the biggest graduation party on campus.

“I must admit it’s one of the most fun groups I’ve ever worked with,” she says. “I’ve met a lot of fantastic people over the years, from all the honorary degree recipients to the students and their families. The day belongs to the students; it’s their show. This is about graduation, a celebration of their time here at the university.”