For students and families, college commencements seem to unfold in crisply choreographed displays of pomp and cheer that build to the day’s high point: the presentation of diplomas.
But behind the scenes, the time-honored tradition of getting sheepskins into the hands of newly minted graduates depends on teams working months in advance, far from the spotlight, on mundane tasks with merciless deadlines.
They are the unsung heroes of commencements, which are taking place at most Boston-area colleges this month.
“This is the highlight of the year, and each of us is so proud to be a part of this,” said Kathy McGuinness, director of academic and general services at Boston College, which will confer 4,000 diplomas on May 22.
With the scale of commencements and the need for things to move smoothly, there is zero room for error. For universities, this means staffs like McGuinness’s must be extremely organized to produce, sort, and distribute the treasured documents.
McGuinness and her five-person team spend the runup to graduation stuffing printed diplomas into maroon envelopes and sorting them by academic college. Before that, they have to ensure students’ names are spelled properly and appear on the diplomas as desired. Most schools have the graduates submit their preferred name online.
Their jobs are all about precision. At Boston University, senior associate registrar Debbie Macalintal, who oversees that school’s diploma process, said that while students can request a full middle name rather than an initial and make other minor changes, they are required to maintain the legal name kept in the official university records. Students also note which ceremony they’ll be attending if they’re a double major, and where they’d like their diploma sent if they can’t attend commencement.
After gathering all the names, BU outsources its diploma production to a Virginia printer, Paradigm Inc., which produces over 6,000 diplomas over two weeks in March. The finished products arrive on Commonwealth Avenue in late March or early April.
BC, meanwhile, prints its diplomas on campus in a secure location to prevent hijinks and forgeries. McGuinness says the names were hand-printed by calligrapher and BC alumnus James Healy until 2003 (and his father before him), but the school has since shifted to using a laser printer while still maintaining BC’s original diploma design with Latin text.
“We’re not giving up on that tradition at this time,” McGuinness said. “It’s really part of the history of our school.”
After the diplomas are in hand, the heavy work begins of packaging and sorting them by college. Once diplomas are packaged, the staffs must check against the list of graduates to ensure that every student slated to walk will receive one, and the diplomas of those who failed to meet graduation requirements are removed. (This is very rare.)
As with any job of this scale, there are occasional snags, such as the occasional damaged diploma or a student marrying and taking a different last name.
At BC, there is an especially tight time crunch to make adjustments. Exams end the Tuesday before commencement and grades are due Thursday; the ceremony takes place the following Monday.
McGuinness and her staff have to reprint any diplomas that need changing, and prepare letters to be placed in the maroon envelopes for students who still have academic requirements to fulfill before they can march. “To the audience it looks the same; only the student knows they still have to do something,” McGuinness said.
Both McGuinness and Macalintal say that although the project seems daunting, there are very few graduation day crises, like a missing diploma or a misspelling.
In an era when many schools no longer hand out the actual diplomas at graduation, BC and BU remain committed to doing things the old-fashioned way.
“Just like any project or any work, it’s great seeing that final end success,” Macalintal said. “When the student has that diploma in hand, that’s what we did, it’s a great feeling.”Jon Mael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.