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Behind the scenes: ‘A commencement like no other’

This year’s commencement worried Christopher Reese the most; it kept him up at night.

Pacing back and forth in his house, the idea came to him. He turned to his wife and asked: If students can’t walk across a traditional stage, what if they could walk across something that at least resembles it? Would they be happy with that?   

“Well, if you compare it to a drive-thru [ceremony] they probably would be,” she told him.   

For Reese, associate vice president of university relations, this was one of many ideas that the commencement team considered this past year. 

“We have done nothing but plan versions and versions and versions, and every time thinking about, what is the thing I can add back?” he said. “And so every time somebody says ‘Why aren’t you doing this thing for me?’ I want to be able to go back and say, ‘We totally want to.’”

Commencement at Angel Stadium of Anaheim was the product of 14-hour days and seven scrapped ceremony ideas. Whenever coronavirus regulations changed, so did the ceremony. This effectively meant that the team would have to start from scratch. 

“We had nine weeks to plan nine months’ worth of activities,” he said. “We were doing a weeks’ worth of work in one day.”

But what weighed heavily on Reese and the four other team members was the backlash from students who demanded a traditional ceremony. 

“The hate that we received, I guess, is expected,” Reese said. “I understand that until we can [provide] the picture-perfect setting and an event that is in their minds, that we probably will not make everybody happy.” 

Students and families voiced their displeasures with the team’s decisions over social media, email and phone. A big blow to the team’s morale was when graduating students found out they might be receiving only one guest ticket. Students and parents commented on Instagram that this decision was “tearing families apart” and making students “choose a parent.”

Time to answer the age-old question: which parent do you love more?” commented Matt James, a fourth-year journalism major. 

One of the first things that Reese asked for during in-person planning at Angel Stadium was at least two guest tickets, but he said he was denied at the time due to stadium protocols. 

Commencement officials received hundreds of emails after each update. 

“What hurt the most was when they asked ‘Don’t you care?’” 

The decisions were all in the face of COVID-19 regulations, Reese said. For a commencement to happen, the team had to follow strict guidelines. 

“There are so many rules,” he said. “There are CDC guidelines and state rules and county rules and city rules and campus rules and chancellor office rules. And then there’s just health and safety rules and stadium rules that we have to follow.” 

When COVID-19 restrictions were loosened in mid-March and an in-person ceremony was theoretically possible, Reese contacted every major stadium in the Southern California area. He said every soccer stadium said “no,” and all the football stadiums couldn’t accommodate a ceremony because of limited staffing during the offseason.

Reese got a call back from Angel Stadium officials who wanted to “make it happen.” Contracts with the stadium usually take 90 days: This contract was put together in 48 hours. Students were notified via email of the venue the same day that the contract was finalized.

“When we found out, students found out,” he said.

The schedule had to fit while the Angels were away and plans had to be made to keep the stadium vendors on-site to quickly build and tear down commencement venue items.

“All of their staff is actually going to be working more than they normally would just to accommodate us having our commencement,” he said. 

Capacity is capped at 15,000 individuals per ceremony, or one-third of the stadium’s seating capacity. Reese anticipates the larger ceremonies, such as the College of Liberal Arts, will meet that capacity: “We had to take what would normally be eight ceremonies and shove them into two,” he said.  

Over the course of the three days, 75,000 students and guests are expected to be seated at the stadium. And for Reese, it is quite a contrast to the car ceremony that was planned just nine weeks before.

“Everyone will walk out feeling pretty damn proud of what they experienced,” he said. “And I think what students get inside that stadium and outside that stadium will be so far beyond their expectations that I’m really proud of what we’ve done.”

A look back: ‘You can’t build a commencement after April’

Spring 2020

Planning for a traditional Long Beach State ceremony begins right after the prior year’s ceremony ends, Reese said. It takes months to finalize the location, contract vendors, obtain permits from Los Angeles County, find volunteers and numerous other logistics. 

When CSULB transitioned to alternative learning in March 2020, Reese knew that an in-person commencement wouldn’t be possible. 

It was going to be delayed. 

“You can’t build a commencement after April,” he said. “You need 90 days to make vendors happen; to make anything in that world happen.”

The commencement team polled a small group of students and consulted Associated Students, Inc. senators, and the overwhelming consensus was that students wanted an in-person ceremony. But that would have to wait due to surging COVID-19 cases and California stay-at-home orders.

So, a virtual ceremony was held to honor the class of 2020 because it’s important not to miss the chance to recognize student accomplishments, Reese said.

“Two weeks after a graduate crosses this threshold, we felt like you have to acknowledge it because there will be something lost,” he said.  

The team worked through the summer with the anticipation of a fall in-person commencement. Reese knew it would be hard, but they would hold fast until the “very last minute.” 

The plan was for a ceremony during fall break. But in late August, the California tier system of COVID-19 regulations was released, halting the plan. 

“We realized the tier system will never allow us to do the things we wanted to do,” he said.

Three versions of an in-person commencement had been developed, but the process had to start all over again. 

Fall 2021

The commencement team now knew that an in-person ceremony was impossible so it looked at what other schools were doing; many had converted to drive-thru ceremonies. By October, new vendors were contacted and driving routes were planned.

But a fall commencement was now out of the question, and it would have to be pushed back to May. It would now be a double commencement for the classes of 2020 and 2021. 

“By the time we’re able to deliver anything based off of health guidance and the surges that were happening, it [was] going to push us out into spring,” Reese said. 

Four different versions of the drive-thru ceremony had been workshopped. Reese said he shared the plans with other colleges so they wouldn’t have to do as much planning. The commencement team had “been through it all.”

The delay to spring meant that all fall vendors had to be released and, again, new vendors would have to be contracted, a new health and safety plan would have to be developed and driving routes would need to be reapproved.

Spring 2021

The fourth iteration of the drive-thru ceremony was finalized by early March. Everything was ready to go. 

In mid-March, however, Reese heard that rules were going to change once again and there would be commencement guidance added to the California reopening plan. 

Commencement planning would again have to start over. But this time, it was for an in-person ceremony with only nine weeks to make it happen. 

And so Reese began pondering ideas while pacing in his home.  

“Most people said ‘hell no.’ And I said, ‘hell yes,’” Reese said.  “Give that to me. I will fight for it.” 

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