Following the end of the 2019 spring semester at Northern Illinois University, marked officially by four graduation ceremonies at the NIU Convocation Center in early May, a relative sense of calm has settled over the DeKalb campus. Classrooms are quiet, foot traffic is practically non-existent and normally packed parking lots are empty.
While the rest of the NIU campus takes a deep breath awaiting the start of summer school in mid-June and gears up for another school year in August, the staff of the Convocation Center is in the midst of arguably its busiest time of the year.
“Graduation Season” at the Convocation Center got underway on Friday, May 10, with the first of four NIU graduation ceremonies on May 10 and Saturday, May 11. In all, the facility welcomed 22,000 guests, graduates and college and university administrators during the four NIU ceremonies. By the time the last of a record 16 high school ceremonies takes place on Sunday, June 2, more than 100,000 people will have walked through the doors of the Convocation Center, including the 9,000 graduates who will forever have the memory of celebrating that important milestone at NIU.
“Graduation season brings a lot of life to the facility, to NIU and to our city,” said Heather Katkus, director of the Convocation Center. “With more than 100,000 people coming through the facility, it’s our chance to really showcase the Convocation Center to the surrounding communities and to our neighbors. These events bring new people to our area, it brings people on campus and they truly see what we have here at NIU. We have a chance to show off our campus, our facility and also our community.”
For the schools, bringing its commencement ceremonies to the Convocation Center makes the culmination of years of hard work a special event for the graduates and their families, according to Dr. Louis Lee, assistant superintendent for Teaching and Learning for High School for the Indian Prairie School District, which has been holding its three graduation ceremonies – on the same day – at the Convo for the past eight years.
“The great thing about having commencement at NIU is number one, the facility and number two, the staff,” Lee said. “People like Heather (Katkus), [Event Coordinator] Sheri (Voss) and their team make it a great experience from the moment we arrive to the minute we leave. They work with us on so many levels from tickets to seating and more. Our parents bring as many people as they want. There is great proximity to our school district, and the families look forward to coming to DeKalb. They go early, they frequent the businesses and even stay overnight. We all feel like honorary Huskies for the day.”
While the four NIU ceremonies make for a busy weekend, graduation season at the Convocation Center is only beginning with the NIU events. On Friday, May 17, the staff of the Convocation Center welcomed the first of 16 different high schools’ graduates, their friends and families to DeKalb and to NIU at the Yorkville High School Graduation. That was followed by three ceremonies on Saturday, May 18, and two more on Sunday, May 19. The next two weekends and even mid-weeks are just as busy. (See the complete list below.)
At a time of year when there is less activity on campus and around town with the absence of students, local businesses and restaurants benefit from the influx of visitors throughout May and into June.
“We work with the Chamber of Commerce and the DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and we send out information to the schools in advance with lists of the local restaurants and hotels,” Katkus said. “We know that people are traveling through and they’re going to need somewhere to eat dinner or lunch or breakfast — before, during and after the ceremonies. They might have to get gas or even stop off at a store or walk around downtown. The business community has the opportunity to reach out to these schools, get them in their restaurants, get them in their shops, go walk around downtown or take advantage of other community highlights.”
The NIU Convocation Center has seen high schools from throughout the region hold their commencement ceremonies in the facility since the DeKalb High School Class of 2005 inaugurated the tradition that year. The 16 ceremonies in 2019 matches last year’s all-time high with the hometown school of DeKalb returning for the 15th year.
Holding 20 ceremonies (including the four NIU graduations) – each requiring specific, detailed set-up, staffing and organization – over a 24-day period is undoubtedly a challenge. Katkus, an NIU alumna who has worked at the Convocation Center since 2008 and has been the director of the facility for the past three years, said the goal for her and the staff is to make each event, and each guest, feel valued and welcomed.
“We want to make sure that every time our doors open, we’re smiling, we’re greeting everybody in the exact same way we did for that first ceremony,” Katkus said. “We want to make sure that when each school comes in, they feel they are the only school. It’s making sure all the details are checked off, and that we are truly treating each guest as if they are our only one. They are the only one that matters in that time.”
Lee said that attitude comes through on the day of graduation for Indian Prairie schools.
“For most of our families, it is their first time seeing the campus and being in the Convocation Center, and the reviews we get from parents are overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “This is the only chance to make this day memorable for these seniors, there are no do-overs, and while the facility is amazing, the heart and soul of the place is the staff. If the people at NIU didn’t make it a great experience for our students and families, we wouldn’t be there. [Graduation at the NIU Convocation Center] has become a part of our culture.”
While it might seem that one graduation is much like the next, each school and each ceremony gets individualized treatment from Katkus and her staff, who begin to plan for graduation season in January with an initial planning meeting. They discuss safety and security, any changes to the facility – like the new scoreboard – or to the Convocation Center’s policies. Each school works with one of four event managers who is assigned specifically to that school. From there, it is about communication and details.
“The event manager basically does all the legwork, they are the liaison between our staff here and the school,” Katkus said. “They make contact with the schools in February, go through things like the timeline, tickets, parking and then the actual ceremony itself. We approve all the information that goes out to the families of the graduates, so we know that everything is accurate and everybody has a good experience when they come here. We want everyone to know exactly what to expect on that day.”
The event manager creates a detailed worksheet that is designed to provide the Convocation Center staff with all the information they need to create a flawless ceremony. Some of the areas addressed in advance include the number of graduates and tickets; whether the ceremony will be streamed live or captured on video; whether the Convocation Center staff needs to secure a sign language interpreter; if the closed captioning feature on the end wall scoreboards is needed; when the tickets will be printed and given to the schools; how many and what credentials are needed.
There are even more details when it comes to planning for the actual day of the ceremony as the operations staff deals with items like number of chairs for the graduates, how many mics, whether there is a guitarist, a singer, a choir, a band; how many presenters, how many podiums and any special needs. The timeline includes what time the school administrators and graduates will arrive, what their set looks like, where will they park and where the students will go once they get inside.
Now imagine addressing all those details, changing the set-up, the chairs, the staging, the mics, the programs and more, not to mention making sure every space in the building is completely clean and secure for the next school, three times in one day.
“The doors are set exactly the same, and we make sure that everything is immaculate for each school so that every school that comes in has a brand new clean experience,” Katkus said. “Aside from that, every school is different and their needs for their ceremonies are often different. We have schools that only have 150 graduates up to 998 graduates. In general, it takes about 50 event staff and security, plus the full-time operations team. We greet everybody, show everybody where they need to go and assist the ADA guests.”
“For us, they handle three graduations in one day and we are there before 6 a.m. on that day and don’t leave until after 10 p.m.,” Lee said. “I can’t say enough about the level of service and how we’re treated. Walt Disney said that each guest should be treated like it is their very first time at his parks. There at NIU, it feels like a brand new facility for each ceremony and the average person has no idea what it takes to make that happen.”
2019 Graduations at the NIU Convocation Center
- NIU Graduate School: Friday, May 10, 6:30 p.m.
- NIU Undergraduate Schools: Saturday, May 11
- College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, 9 a.m.
- College of Business; College of Visual and Performing Arts; College of Engineering and Engineering Technology: 1:30 p.m.
- College of Health and Human Services; College of Education: 5:30 p.m.
- Yorkville High School: Friday, May 17, 6:30 p.m.
- Oswego Community Unit School District: Saturday, May 18
- Oswego, 11 a.m.
- Oswego East, 3 p.m.
- Huntley High School: Saturday, May 18, 7:30 p.m.
- West Aurora High School: Sunday, May 19, 11 a.m.
- Kaneland High School: Sunday, May 19, 5 p.m.
- Batavia High School: Wednesday, May 22, 7 p.m.
- East Aurora High School: Friday, May 24, 7 p.m.
- DeKalb High School: Saturday, May 25, 10 a.m.
- Indian Prairie School District: Sunday, May 26
- Neuqua Valley: 9:45 a.m.
- Matea Valley: 2 p.m.
- Waubonsie Valley: 6 p.m.
- Burlington Central High School: Wednesday, May 29, 7 p.m.
- IMSA: Saturday, June 1, 3:30 p.m.
- St. Charles Community School District: Sunday, June 2
- St. Charles East, 11:30 a.m.
- St. Charles North, 3:30 p.m.