Behind the pomp and circumstance: People who make commencement happen

By their very design, commencement ceremonies at Elon University have an easy flow, but look closer into the planning of these celebrations and you will find hundreds of Elon and community members playing their role and delivering their assignments to perfection.

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Commencement Starts With Planning

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Graduating students wearing robe and gowns walk past security on North Williamson Avenue

Early on May 24, 2024 cattle gates set up days before down North Williamson Avenue created a safe and logical walkway towards Schar Center, an early processional for the Elon University graduates ahead of the 134th commencement ceremony.

Teams of officers and sheriffs from multiple units, including Elon University, Town of Elon, Burlington, Gibsonville, Alamance County and more guided people and cars.

“If you plan for the best and plan for the worst you have no surprises – that’s the name of law enforcement,” says Josh Tillotson, captain for Elon Campus Safety and Police.

He says that even for large events like commencement, personnel for events can stay calm and level-headed because of the months of planning and many hours of practice.

“We know how to work together, and I can rely on other departments within Elon to do their jobs because they’re good at their jobs,” said Tillotson.

Collaboration was on full display during commencement, both inside and outside of the venue. Around 100 student life staff members checked graduates into the practice gym and guided guests through the halls, the tunnels and the graduation ceremony. These staff members and others organized a space in the practice gym at Schar, where the students were treated to special motivational talks from Elon President Connie Ledoux Book; Jon Dooley, vice president for student life and associate professor of education; and keynote speaker, alumna Ginna Claire Mason ’13  ahead of the ceremony.

A Full-Circle Event

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Felicia Massey ’85 checks in a student ahead of the 2024 spring commencement ceremony

For many of the graduates, the people working the check-in lines were those they had known throughout their time at Elon. One of those checking in students was Felicia Massey ‘85, program assistant for the Danieley Center Neighborhood, who says she has worked nearly every graduation during the 35 years she has worked at Elon.

“What I enjoy most about graduation is you look at the thousands of faces that you may not know and then there’s that student you always worked with for their three or four years at Elon,” said Massey. “You’ve watched them develop professionally, and that brings a lot of joy to you as a supervisor.”

Massey is not only a proud graduate of Elon, she is also a proud mother of two graduates, one in business and the other in teaching education. She expressed gratitude for Elon providing a welcoming place for her to work and flexibility to support her family.

“I have friendships with my colleagues, and we know we can bring big events like commencement together – if we don’t know who to go to, if we don’t have the answers, there’s always someone here who has the answers,” said Massey.

For Cara Plasencia, commencement symbolizes an opportunity to usher students, literally and metaphorically, into the next phases of their lives. Plasencia is the associate director of counseling services and worked at the check-in tables before graduation and in the aisles afterwards.

“We’ve helped these students and supported them since they first came to Elon. It’s a great honor to see them walk the stage and get to this point in their journey throughout their college career.”

– Cara Plasencia, associate director of counseling services

Tillotson has been at Elon for nearly 17 years and offered a similar reflection. He says he has enjoyed staying connected with students from their first year and then crossing the stage. In their pre-planning for commencement, Elon Campus Safety and Police is largely responsible for coordinating logistics related to parking, accessibility and foot traffic, while also being aware of and planning the prevention of any disruptions that may occur.

Scott Stevens ‘03 is the director of landscaping and transportation and oversees a number of roles for commencement, including handing out saplings, an endearing tradition at Elon that began in 1991. The saplings need to be ordered one year in advance to give them time to grow.

“We have a sense of accomplishment that undergraduate students completed their degree and used our facilities for four-to-five years,” Steven said. “We got another 1500 students through the door.”

An All-Campus Ceremony

Stevens also remarked on the “all-campus” effort to deliver a memorable graduation ceremony and discussed the small details that make an event successful, from carpentry to chairs to ordering saplings. Between graduations, facilities, student life and multiple other divisions efficiently clean and rearrange the space to offer the next graduation ceremony as clean and flawless of a ceremony as the first.

Plascencia said that this graduating class, many of whom entered college in Fall 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, were deprived of some of the rich traditions afforded to other classes in efforts to maintain a healthy and safe campus.

“Many in this class likely did not have a high school graduation either, so I think for this class in particular, this is a really special time for them and I think we just do a really job hosting commencement,” added Plascencia.

For many employees and faculty at Elon University, graduation can be the closure of a full circle and a testament to the efforts they put in to create a welcoming campus for first-year students and every year after. This particular graduation is also a testament to the resilience of a 2024 class that largely did not have an in-person graduation ceremony in high school due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, but who, unlike many first-year peers around the country, were able to convene in-person in fall after careful and intense planning across personnel at Elon.


During her address to the 2024 graduating class, Elon President Connie Ledoux Book connected the challenges faced by Isabella Cannon ’24, who graduated 100 years ago after a devastating fire that rewrote the history of Elon University, and the pandemic faced by this graduating class.

The metaphor is apt for this 134th class and for the dedication of Elon employees. No matter the challenge, Elon is up for the task.