NCU Prepares to Welcome the Next Alumni Class:
A Behind the Scenes Look at NCU’s Graduation Planning

Written by Judy Tierney

In early July, NCU will welcome nearly 2,500 guests including graduates and their family and friends, faculty, staff and other members of the NCU community to the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort for a full weekend of NCU graduation-related activities. In addition to the main event – the 2017 Commencement Ceremony – the weekend will feature poster session presentations, an honor’s society reception, the doctoral hooding ceremony, a dessert reception and more!

NCU’s Graduation Team Members

If creating the perfect event for the University’s graduates isn’t already enough, add the annual Faculty Symposium, a two-day faculty conference that immediately precedes the graduation festivities, to the planning process. So, with five action-packed days of events, just how does the team behind the scenes of this multi-day affair create an experience that is magical for its guests of honor?

“Very carefully,” explained Greg Pollack, NCU’s Senior Director, Marketing Communications and Strategic Partnerships. Pollack has been at the helm of the graduation planning team for three years and said the group is still looking for new ways to enhance the week. “We incorporate what we learned the year prior to create an even better experience the next year.”

It’s a University-wide effort to execute a week of events of this magnitude. Pollack and his partner on the project, Sam Wilcox, Senior Marketing Operations Manager, lead a steering committee comprised of representatives from each of the major departments across the University. Committee members from academics, alumni relations, IT, enrollment, facilities, learning and development, marketing, the registrar’s office, NCU leadership, faculty and a group of nearly 150 NCU volunteer ambassadors, prepare for months in advance to get everything ready.

“Watching the team, especially the ambassadors, come together is one of my favorite parts of the planning process,” added Wilcox. “Anyone on the staff of the University who wants to take part in the graduation can volunteer as an ambassador, and seeing how excited they are to serve is really fun for me.”

“Watching the team, especially the ambassadors, come together is one of my favorite parts of the planning process.”

Sam Wilcox, Senior Marketing Operations Manager

Greg Pollack and Sam Wilcox

Ambassadors serve in various roles including greeting students as they arrive at the hotel, leading check-in teams, serving as ushers or helping graduates line up before they walk into the commencement. “Virtually every area of graduation is supported by our NCU ambassadors,” explained Wilcox. “They are there onsite interacting with our graduates and their families.”

Wilcox and Pollack also manage a number of outside resources including the event production company, photographers and videographers, security firms and the multiple contacts within the hotel to ensure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed.

“These events are such a highlight for our graduates and faculty that it’s critical to keep them in mind with every decision we make,” said Pollack. “We carefully consider every detail from the commencement speaker to the desserts we’ll serve at the reception after the graduation ceremony takes place.”

Pollack explained that while he and the rest of the committee work on the events year after year, for the graduates, it’s the first and possibly only time they’ll have this special experience of being honored for the degree they’ve worked so hard to earn. “That’s why we strive for perfection and to make it a flawless event for them,” he added.

To reach this goal, the team plans and plans, and plans some more. “I can’t tell you how many times we go through our timeline, review scripts, meet with the hotel regarding rooms and menus, and test equipment with our AV company to ensure everything is working,” said Pollack. “We want to make sure everything is just right.”

NCU Provost Dr. David Harpool and President George Burnett also play a large role in the event planning, offering consultation and oversight. As the event gets closer, Pollack and Wilcox review the final plans with the full President’s Cabinet as well to get their input.

When the team arrives at the hotel a week in advance for the final preparations, adrenaline and lots of caffeine take over. “The first day I arrive, we meet the delivery truck bright and early to unpack all of our signage, programs, materials and everything we need for all of the week’s events,” described Wilcox. “From there, we start setting up in different stages, beginning with the faculty symposium area. From the moment we get to the hotel, we are constantly running, making sure we have all the little details in place.”

“The look on our graduates’ faces when they meet the Deans and University leadership, and receive their diplomas, reminds me every year why we do everything we do, and that’s the best part.”

Greg Pollack, Senior Director, Marketing Communications and Strategic Partnerships

Working 18-hour days, they transform an entire area of the hotel with the look and feel of NCU, an experience created especially for the honorees. Because NCU has no residency requirements and there is no physical institution for students to attend, the graduation is often the first NCU event graduates attend in person. Therefore, the atmosphere is critically important and thoughtfully designed to give students that sense of being part of something special, explained Pollack.

“I remember walking through the foyer last year, after all of the NCU branding was in place, when graduates and their families were starting to arrive,” said Wilcox. “There’s nothing like seeing a student come to graduation after working somewhere between two to six years on their degree, and seeing how excited they are taking pictures with their families in front of our NCU backdrops. It really puts in perspective why we come to work every day.”

Then comes what Pollack and Wilcox describe as the most stressful and most enjoyable part of the entire planning process – the commencement ceremony. “It seems like you're finalizing all the details for the event itself, and then it happens," said Pollack. "You cross your fingers that it's perfect.”

“Seeing the graduates cross the stage and knowing that we played a small role in celebrating something they worked so hard to accomplish makes the months of planning all worthwhile,” said Wilcox.

Pollack agreed. “The look on our graduates’ faces when they meet the Deans and University leadership, and receive their diplomas, reminds me every year why we do everything we do, and that’s the best part.”

The 2017 NCU Commencement Ceremony will take place on July 8, 2017. For more information about the weekend festivities, please visit the NCU graduation website and check out the highlights video from NCU’s 2016 graduation weekend.