BY ANDREW VOWLES
Sue Desautels has been on duty at every convocation ceremony held at U of G during the past 10 years. But she's never actually seen any of those tens of thousands of students walk across the stage. Once again this week, during Guelph's largest seasonal send-off, Desautels will be playing her crucial role out of sight of the main event.
It's her backstage job to prepare what she calls the “parade” of gown-bedecked graduands to cross the Gryphon Dome platform for a turn to shake the chancellor's hand and receive their ticket to the future.
“A to Z logistics captain” might be a suitable moniker for the post she's held for the past decade. Officially, she's Guelph's convocation clerk, but unofficially, the job attracts other labels. Laughing across her desk in the Office of Registrarial Services, Desautels says: “Some people refer to it as complication clerk. I say that, too.”
Visit her about 10 days before the beginning of convocation week and you might call her envelope stuffer extraordinaire.
On one recent morning, her desktop is nearly invisible under neat piles of materials needed to assemble degree packages, including cardboard backing, acetate and degree folders. Front and centre is a perfect stack of cream-coloured degree parchments, lined up — like surrogates for their recipients a few days hence — by degree and surname. She tucks each assembled package into an oversized white envelope whose printed label matches the name on the degree, then places it in one of the white plastic bins on the floor of her office.
It's a routine she and colleague clerk Frances Determann will repeat for almost 2,300 undergraduates in the three weeks preceding summer convocation (graduate degrees are prepared by Ruth Switzer of Graduate Program Services). With a full week to go, Desautels has begun filling her ninth bin; seven more occupy her colleague's neighbouring cubicle. They're about halfway through the master list, a list that has grown during her decade in the job. Ten years ago, summer convocation graduands numbered about 1,500.
This week's ceremonies culminate a process that began about four months ago — Feb. 11, to be exact — with the deadline for students' graduation applications. Desautels' office shares the applications with program counsellors across campus to determine who's eligible to graduate. By the final clearance date May 20, all candidates will have been checked and rechecked. She e-mails the master list of names to a Stratford printing company that produces the degree parchments.
After stuffing the envelopes, she cross-references the packages against the convocation programs (produced by M&T Printing in the University Centre). She also checks sanction lists of students with outstanding fees such as library fines that must be paid before graduation.
Despite all that paper and all those names, Desautels says errors are rare. Parchments with spelling mistakes can be reprinted before the ceremony (students are required to proofread their information when they apply). Not once in the past 10 years has a graduate come away from the ceremony without a parchment, she says.
With every package lined up in its correct bin, the containers are secured in the registrar's office. During convocation week, they're delivered to the Gryphon Dome for each day's ceremony. Also delivered to the dome each day are the graduands themselves, but not before a visit to Desautels and her wardrobe crew in the west gym in the Athletics Centre.
That's where everyone reports to be fitted for gowns (U of G owns about 600 gowns, sizes small to XXXL) and to receive their marching orders for the day's parades. One year, gowning took place in one of the arenas because of the numbers, but that probably won't happen again. “The ice melted. It wasn't pretty.”
For Desautels and the 14 or so people working with her — including temporary staff hired for the event and volunteers from pertinent academic departments — convocation days are typically 10-hour hauls beginning at 7:30 a.m. Once gowning is complete and the graduands are parading to the Gryphon Dome — and shortly before the platform guests are piped in — she takes up her post behind the stage to prepare for handing out the degree parchments.
Each ceremony can bring its own challenges. At winter convocation in February, where more than 800 degrees and diplomas were presented, a graduand called from Highway 401 to say her family had been involved in a car accident. Desautels was prepared for her arrival, helped her calm down and slipped her into place almost seamlessly.
She also regularly receives requests from students who require special assistance during the ceremonies.
“We've helped students who are blind, and on a couple of occasions, they've brought along their seeing-eye dog. Other situations have involved students on crutches and in wheelchairs. We're always happy to do whatever we can to accommodate people with special needs so they can celebrate their academic achievement with their classmates.”
Desautels gets teary-eyed recalling the five or six degrees that have been awarded posthumously during her tenure, including the case of a student killed last year in a car accident. She's responsible for discussing logistics with the family, including meeting them on campus, preparing a family member to receive the degree and escorting them to the dome. “It's very touching.”
What qualities make a good convocation clerk? Ticking off such traits as organization, energy, attention to detail and patience, she says: “You have to multi-task continually. It's a juggling act. There are so many details you're juggling on a day-to-day basis.”
She might add stamina to the list, particularly before and during convocation week itself as she handles a rising tide of e-mail and phone queries about everything from the number of convocation guests to accommodations and restaurants.
“It builds to a crescendo. On the last day of clearance, I'm on my hands and knees.”
One stress reliever is a round of golf at the Cutten Club, often immediately after the workday ends. Her partner is often her husband, Bob, who owns the Woolwich Arms.
It was during Bob's own turns on the convocation stage — he earned a B.Comm. in the mid-1970s and a master's degree in the early 1980s — that she attended the ceremony as a guest rather than behind the scenes. That was in pre-dome days, she adds in a wistful tone, when smaller numbers of graduands could be accommodated in War Memorial Hall.
She's also attended college graduation ceremonies elsewhere for her son, Court, and daughter, Emily, as well as ceremonies for their friends. Guelph's convocation outshines others, she says, pointing to firm protocol here — gowns properly clasped at the neck, no purses or flowers — that ensures a decorous, dignified event.
Backstage or not, “you're all part of the celebration,” she says. “On the whole, it runs really smoothly. It's fun just seeing the kids go through. We try to make it special for them.”
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