It’s 11:15 a.m. on the Tuesday before Commencement, and Kathleen Cunneen, project coordinator for the Undergraduate Deans Office, is standing in the middle of traffic on Wheelock Street in front of the Green.
In the coming days, Cunneen, who coordinates some of Commencement for the Dean of the College division, will train Student Marshals to lead the procession, supervise a rehearsal with graduating students, draft and edit scripts for awards ceremonies, wrangle the class photograph, and oversee the senior procession during the Commencement ceremony. “My role is like a drummer in a band,” she says. “I keep the rhythm.”
But at the moment, she is focused on the task at hand. Cunneen is excited to learn that the college photographer will try to get a great shot of one of her favorite moments of Commencement. This year, Eli Burakian ’00 has planned to bring in an elevated lift—“cherry picker”—so the photographer can capture the procession of graduates as they walk on Wheelock Street from Leede Arena to the Green.
“It’s such a profound moment; it’s just spectacular,” says Cunneen “The 1,100 students marching in perfect rows, with the bagpiper playing and leading the way, it’s really beautiful. The students haven’t yet been seen by the crowd on the Green, so it’s kind of quiet and meaningful. Very few people get to see it, which almost makes it more special.”
Cunneen would love to share the moment with more people, at least through photographs. But there are questions about where to place the lift. The lift has to be high enough to allow for a shot above several tall maple trees. It needs to be placed on the high-traffic Wheelock Street, but out of the way to allow the Senior procession. Once the procession leaves the road, the cherry picker must not block traffic—after all, it will be one of the busiest days of the year in Hanover.
Stepping in and out of traffic, Cunneen talks with E.J. Kiefer, director of conferences and special events, about the height and placement of the lift. They walk around and take in different angles, looking at branches that could obstruct the photographer.
As Cunneen talks and gestures, a gust of wind blows her cup of water out of her hand, sending her scrambling across Wheelock Street to grab it. The cup is blown down the ramp to the Hanover Inn parking garage, and Cunneen disappears from view as she chases after it.
On a week that is predictably unpredictable, the sudden gust that hits Cunneen seems like an appropriate metaphor.
“There are always wrinkles that come up that are unexpected,” says Cunneen, who also mentors student stage managers for the theater department. “There is always something, and you just have to roll with it.”
In 14 years of helping run Commencement, Cunneen has certainly seen a lot of surprises. But with the help of her many colleagues, she hopes the Commencement team has prepared for just about everything.
For example, Student Marshals have the crucial duty of leading their fellow graduates to the correct seats, and counting to make sure all are present and in the right seats. Cunneen trains the Marshals in the days before Commencement, but the actual ceremony poses challenges. Marshals can be distracted by family members, or be overcome by the emotion of the moment, and it’s possible to lose track of students, which can have a ripple effect that could result in someone getting the wrong diploma, or a name being called at the wrong time.
So the Dean of the College division enlists Green Key Society volunteers, younger Dartmouth students, to shadow the Marshals. The “shadows” walk right behind the Marshals, helping them lead the procession and keeping count of graduates. Since the shadows aren’t graduating and don’t have family in attendance, they can concentrate solely on the Marshal’s ceremonial responsibilities.
“You never notice them, because everyone is looking at the graduates,” Cunneen says. “But there is a ‘shadow’ behind every Marshal and the bagpiper, wearing a green shirt, being in their ear and helping them stay on track.”
These are the nuances that show the immense planning and attention to detail behind the scenes. Cunneen is quick to defer credit to her co-workers and the numerous volunteers from within the Dean of the College division. “It’s a huge effort on their part,” she says. And while it can be stressful, Cunneen cherishes playing a role in Commencement. “It’s a labor of love,” she says.
A triumphant Cunneen emerges from the Hanover Inn parking garage, having corralled the plastic cup. She dodges a few more cars on Wheelock. Eventually, Cunneen and Kiefer confirm the location of the cherry picker.
“So we’re all set, E.J.?” asks Cunneen.
“We’re all set,” says Kiefer.
“Now,” Cunneen says with a laugh, “let’s just hope the procession doesn’t turn the wrong way.”