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Behind the scenes at convocation

It’s like planning 14 weddings, all at once, says Christina Coakley.

BY MAGGIE MA | APR 04 2011

As students don their academic robes in preparation for their big moment to cross the stage and receive their degree, Christina Coakley runs down her mental checklist: Flowers? Check. Caterers? Check. Programs? Check. Musicians? Check. And on it goes.

As convocation administrator at Dalhousie University, Ms. Coakley takes care of everything leading up to and on the day of that special ceremony for students. “It’s all about the graduate,” she says. “Everything that I do is an effort to make [convocation] the best experience possible.”

From setting up the dates to keeping track of applications for graduation, to mailing out the invitations, getting the programs printed and communicating with students throughout the process, she’s responsible.

But, the real action doesn’t happen until the first day of ceremonies – this year, beginning May 24 at Dalhousie. Ms. Coakley, present at all 14 ceremonies that take place over seven days, will be dashing around making sure that everything runs smoothly and that everyone – graduates, audience members, musicians, volunteers, staff and crew – has everything they need.

“It’s like planning 14 weddings – all at once,” she says with a laugh.

However, regardless of the meticulous planning, problems are bound to arise. Most are easily fixed and quickly forgotten, others less so.

Ms. Coakley recalls the time when the vocalist chosen to sing O Canada didn’t show up. At first she thought that the singer, who had performed at previous ceremonies, was just late. But, 10 minutes before everyone was to stand for the national anthem, there was still no vocalist and no back-up plan.

Just as she began to panic backstage, a staff member suggested that one of the ushers could sing. Although initially skeptical, Ms. Coakley went with it, threw a choir gown over the usher’s uniform and got her up on stage. “She did an amazing job,” says Ms. Coakley, “and, no one was the wiser.”

Although she’s encountered all sorts of glitches and obstacles in her five years on the job at Dalhousie, Ms. Coakley admits that those hectic ceremonies remain the favourite part of her duties. “It’s a very, very exciting time [for graduates and family] and it’s an honour to get to be a part of that.”

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