Each year, MIT’s Commencement provides a special opportunity for graduates and their families to celebrate all they’ve accomplished at MIT. But it’s also a celebration for MIT’s community more broadly, as it represents a milestone in the Institute’s mission of making a positive impact on the world. It’s fitting, then, that an extensive group of staff, students, and faculty volunteers help make the event possible.
More than 200 people from around the MIT community offer their time every year to help make MIT’s Commencement celebration special. The volunteers welcome visitors, address any problems that arise, and guide people around the labyrinth of campus in a way that only longtime members of MIT’s community could. Along the way, they offer congratulations and take time to revel in the exciting atmosphere.
“People have a sense of pride working at MIT — it’s one of the best schools in the world,” says John McDonald, who works in MIT’s Division of Student Life and oversees the volunteer program each year. “Being a part of something that’s greater than themselves, being a cog in the wheel keeping MIT going, really draws folks to Commencement.”
It’s not an easy day. Multiple volunteers described waking up at 4:30 a.m. to get to campus on time. They spend the vast majority of the day on their feet, and the event goes on rain or shine. And yet, many described it as one of their favorite days of the year.
“I’ve always enjoyed the feeling on the day of Commencement,” says Kelley Brown, a senior campus planner at MIT who estimates he’s volunteered for Commencement 15 times. “It’s so joyful. My job brings me limited contact with students, so it’s a way of reminding me of why I want to be at MIT. It’s an appreciation of MIT and it shows how the community can come together.”
Brown is far from the only volunteer who’s kept coming back. Jennifer Smith, assistant director of MIT’s Campus Activities Complex, has volunteered for Commencement nearly every year since she started working at MIT more than 20 years ago.
“It’s a way to see students I know and wave to them during the procession,” Smith says. “But people also have needs, and [the logistics can be] confusing. I’ve always pictured if I was coming to a different place, possibly even a different country, I’d need some help.”
Many volunteers said Commencement exemplifies why they like working at MIT.
“I think that’s what brings me back: Commencement reminds me of what MIT’s all about and why I’m still happy when I wake up in the morning and go to work,” says Dimana Macdonald, assistant director for HR/Payroll in the Office of the Vice President for Finance. “People are so excited!”
Longtime volunteers have countless stories. There was the year a procession of ducklings made their way down the center aisle of Killian Court before any students had a chance to. Or the time families were offered entertainment as they waited for the ceremony to begin, in the form of a hawk chasing a squirrel. The squirrel ended up launching from a tree and landing on a visitor’s head before making its escape. (The woman was unharmed).
In Smith’s second year, it poured rain, so volunteers handed out ponchos. The tents over Killian Court offered a respite — until one sagging section overflowed, sending gallons of water onto one unsuspecting volunteer. The volunteer was in good spirits afterward. Smith recalls her joking, “The universe happens.” Still, she did not become a career volunteer.
Another year, a 4-year-old boy turned up without his parents. Volunteers followed protocols and combed the rows of seats in search of his parents, but for about an hour they had no luck. So the child became a temporary member of the volunteer team, complete with a walkie talkie he enjoyed sending out commands through, until he was finally reunited with his family.
“What could have been a very stressful, chaotic event, turned into a funny story. The training worked,” McDonald says. “The part of those stories I like is it plays into the preparation that MIT makes for all the different things that can come up. Our volunteer staff isn’t there to provide first aid or security, we’re there to be ambassadors to MIT, to make the guest’s day enjoyable.”
The event and all of its complexities give volunteers something to rally around and bond over.
“I’ve always appreciated the attitude and approach of staff,” Brown says. “There’s a certain commonality of dedication. We take our work seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and you can always count on the other people. I find that at Commencement. No matter what your role is, you’re working hard at it, but you’re also upbeat and friendly and understand that it’s not just about efficiency and following orders but also getting along with everyone and working together and accommodating people when you need to. That makes for a good feeling in everything we do.”
Sharing a moment with graduates and their families is a great draw for volunteers. So is the camaraderie and the feeling of giving back. But McDonald thinks the biggest reason volunteers keep returning every year is more simple: It’s fun.
“Volunteers come back every year because they just enjoy it,” McDonald says. “It’s a rare opportunity for folks to come together and participate in something that’s one of the biggest reasons why we’re at MIT: to send off our graduates to make the world a better place. They all come out of it saying they’re tired, but they’re happy to do it and they’ll do it again next year.”