Collaboration, compassion key to SFU’s return to in-person convocation

November 25, 2021
A volunteer chats with graduands during a convocation ceremony this fall. The event was the first in-person university convocation in Canada since the start of COVID-19.

“There is a moment,” says Gloria Chu, “where the pipers pause and then the Indigenous drumming and singing starts and it echoes across Convocation Mall as the chancellor’s party moves onto the stage.

“It is super powerful and it moves me completely, every time. It’s one of my favourite parts of Convocation,” says Chu, who, in her role as director of ceremonies, events and protocol in SFU Ceremonies and Events, has overseen SFU’s convocation ceremonies for the past 11 years.

Held twice a year, convocation is a landmark moment and a time of celebration and recognition for students, their family and friends. In October, for the first time since the fall of 2019, SFU returned to an in-person convocation ceremony – the first non-virtual convocation ceremony for any Canadian university since the start of the global pandemic.

This was the culmination of months of planning and replanning; navigating ever-changing public health orders and scenarios; organizing hundreds of staff and volunteers; and collaborating with a half-dozen of SFU departments to deliver a memorable ceremony that marks a milestone event in the life of a student.

PHOTO SLIDESHOW: Convocation is an exciting time for graduands to celebrate with their friends and families. Our photographer snapped these candid, behind-the-scenes shots of some of the 400 hardworking staff and volunteers that help make the occasion special.

Working together to celebrate in person

“Convocation is so meaningful for students and their families. It’s what they’re all aiming for when they come to SFU,” says Lisa Elliott, associate director of Ceremonies and Events, who has helped plan convocation for each of her eight years at SFU.

“It’s phenomenal to see the faculties and different units across campus come together to put on this event. It takes more than 400 staff and volunteers to put on convocation. We don’t often get the opportunity to work together as a university community and to have this many people collaborating together. That’s one of my favourite parts – the collaboration.”

  • Related: Did you attend a virtual grad? Find out about how you can attend an in-person ceremony, here.

This summer, planning began for a full return to campus for students, faculty and staff. Included with the return was a desire to host an in-person convocation celebration. Together with the Registrar’s Office and Student Services, Chu and her team worked with all eight faculties, Advancement & Alumni Engagement, Communications and Marketing, Facilities Services, Graduate and Post-doctoral Studies, IT Services, MECS and Parking Services to chart four possible scenarios, ranging from a virtual ceremony to a full ceremony with guests.

Kris Nordgren, SFU’s assistant registrar with Senate and Academic Services and a key member of the core planning team who works to coordinate and deliver convocation ceremonies, says the health and safety of all participants was the biggest concern and one of the largest planning challenges. Public health orders governing gatherings changed frequently, including only a mere three weeks before the ceremony, when vaccine passports were required.

Kris Nordgren, SFU’s assistant registrar with Senate and Academic Services, volunteers during the 2021 fall convocation.

After much consultation, organizers opted for a modest scenario for convocation and added extra dates. As part of the safety planning, the team added an entirely new registration and assigned seating system.  Regalia pinning, which traditionally has taken place in the AQ, was moved outside to minimize crowds.

“It was certainly different from a pre-COVID ceremony – staff and students were both happy and excited, but there was still a feeling of anxiety that the ceremonies could get cancelled,” says Nordgren.

Lessons learned from virtual ceremonies

As challenging as the transition to virtual was, Gloria Chu says there were some great lessons to elevate engagement with the online audience and graduates. For example, as introduced in the virtual ceremonies, graduates will be individually recognized online and the filming and production of the live ceremony will be refined to carefully consider both the in-person and online experience.

Challenges behind the scenes

A critical challenge for the team was finding enough volunteers for the eight ceremonies. Timing-wise, convocation was slated for the first week of October, only a month after staff and faculty returned to campus for the first time since the start of the pandemic. And due to the extra health measures, an additional 25 volunteers were needed for each of the eight ceremonies.

Among the planners, there was some concern that they wouldn’t be able to round-up enough volunteers to make the event happen.

'It’s hard for people to imagine, when it went so smoothly and seamlessly, but there was so much work behind the scenes to make this one come together.'

Gloria Chu, Director, Ceremonies, Events and Protocol

Nordgren, an SFU alumnus, who knows how important convocation is to students, jokes that he twisted some arms to get people to volunteer. When called upon, many happily responded including Laurie Anderson, executive director of SFU’s Vancouver campus, who made a special appeal for volunteers among downtown employees.

“People from across the university really came out to support the grads,” says Chu. “We needed people and they stepped up.

“Everyone went above and beyond in order to achieve what we did. I think it’s hard for people to imagine, when it went so smoothly and seamlessly. But there was so much work behind the scenes to make this one come together.”

For Nordgren, the ceremony was doubly special, as his wife, Melanie Monk, who works in the Office of the Vice-President, Research, received her master of education.

“It was one ceremony where I wasn’t fully engaged behind the scenes and was able to sit in the audience with my daughter to watch her cross the stage and cheer her on.”

In reflection, Elliott says all those long days and hours and planning (and re-planning) were worth it.

“Just to hear the feedback from some of the graduands who were able to come back to in person and to have that really amazing buzz in Convocation Mall. People really appreciated it and were really happy to be back on campus, celebrating their achievements with their family and friends.

“It was all worth it, it was a success.”

In-person ceremony for virtual grads

Graduates who attended a virtual convocation ceremony in 2020 and 2021 will have the opportunity for an in-person ceremony in May 2022. To help with the planning, a survey with information was sent to these graduates in late November. Regular updates on the plans will be posted here: http://www.sfu.ca/alumni/welcome-back.html

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