May 23 2019

Graduation Ceremonies Put Campus Networks to the Test

College commencements place a unique burden on IT equipment. Here’s how three campuses prepare for the big event.

College students spend four or more years earning their undergraduate degrees — and their parents may spend even longer earning the money to pay for them. But universities have exactly one day to celebrate the effort.

Preparing for graduation ceremonies is like putting on a Broadway production that opens and closes in a single night. Along with staging and logistics, there’s a fair amount of technology involved behind the scenes — and whether a school boasts 30,000 students or fewer than 1,000, the preparations don’t vary much.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out what it takes to prepare graduates for a new, tech–enabled world.

Video and Wi-Fi Help Shine the Spotlight on College Grads

Kennesaw State University, a 36,000-student school with two campuses outside of Atlanta, holds six ceremonies for approximately 3,400 spring graduates. All of the events are held in the Convocation Center, a 3,866-seat arena that’s also home to the KSU basketball and volleyball squads. 

From a physical standpoint, the hardest part is making the center look less like a gymnasium and more like a stage, complete with piping and drapes, sophisticated lighting schemes and a linear-array public address system, says Brandon Harris, event audio visual manager for KSU.

Video is key, he adds. As each graduate rises to accept his or her diploma, wireless Panasonic broadcast and remote-controlled, pan-tilt-zoom cameras focus in to capture the images and stream them to the Convocation Center’s video wall and the KSU website. 

“We have the cameras set up so parents can see their students have their photo moment and be famous for a minute,” says Harris. “We also put them up on screen as they’re walking out, journeying on to the next chapter in their lives.”

2.9 million

The number of associate and bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2018–19

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Back to School Statistics, April 2018

The biggest tech challenge? Providing enough Wi-Fi for proud parents and other family members in attendance. That meant bringing in additional Cisco 3802 and Cisco 3702 access points, says Davide Gaetano, CTO and executive director of infrastructure engineering at KSU.

“The Convocation Center is a very high-density environment,” says Gaetano. “We added a large number of APs to cover it.” 

The tricky part was covering the large, open space in the center where the graduates sit, he adds. The solution Gaetano’s team came up with was to connect hardwired APs to bleachers and lay the cable so that it unspooled as the bleachers were extended. 

But the goal wasn’t to blanket the arena with Wi-Fi coverage for the entire 75-minute ceremony, says Joe Skopitz, director of operations for event and venue management.

“A lot of attendees are using their phones to capture photos and video,” he adds. “If we’re able to handle 1,000 concurrent users, I would consider that a success.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how universities can protect student data privacy and security after graduation. 

For IT Staff, Event Planning Calls for Preparation and Problem-Solving

At smaller schools, the issues are very much the same. 

Iowa Wesleyan University graduates approximately 100 students each December and May from an enrollment of just over 600. The small liberal arts college in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, streams each ceremony live to the web from the campus’s Ruble Arena, says Meg Richtman, vice president for strategic initiatives.

Davidson College, a liberal arts school just north of Charlotte, N.C., is a small college with a big ceremony — or, rather, two of them. 

Thanks to North Carolina’s notoriously volatile summer weather, the 1,843-student school has to plan for two ceremonies: one outdoors under the stately 100-year-old oak trees on Davidson’s historic front lawn, the other inside its 5,700-seat sports arena, says Technical Director Jim Nash. 

The ceremony is also streamed to the Davidson website and the 600-seat Duke Family Performance Hall on campus.

Aside from summer storms, the biggest challenge has been having sufficient bandwidth to carry the ceremonies live, says Nash, who’s been managing the technology for 18 years.

“The first year we did this, the college hadn’t purchased enough streaming service,” he says. “We held the ceremony under the oaks, the wind was blowing the branches around, and all that movement made the video blotchy. Every year I meet with our technology and innovation team to make sure our pipeline is big enough to get the stream out.” 

Despite graduating 400 to 500 students each spring, Davidson’s ceremonies attract up to 6,000 people, many of them area residents who’ve been coming to the festivities for years. To accommodate the huge number of campus visitors that day, the IT department bumps up guest Wi-Fi bandwidth from 140 megabits per second to 1,400Mbps, says Director of Media Relations Jay Pfeifer. 

Even then, adds Nash, many people sitting in the audience are watching the video on their phones via the cellular network. 

Despite nearly two decades of racing to prepare two large ceremonies at the same time, Nash says it’s still an emotional experience for him

“I look around at the institution I love, seeing the graduates walk away with their families and old friendships rekindled, and I end up crying,” he says. “It’s a very magical, special time.”


Learn from Your Peers

What can you glean about security from other IT pros? Check out new CDW research and insight from our experts.