OUR Clemson; Student Affairs

Graduation behind the scenes: How University staff successfully move Clemson to Greenville


More than 3,600 students are expected to take part in Clemson University commencement ceremonies this week at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville. When the first ceremony gets under way at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, the atmosphere in the arena will be as close to the feel of a Clemson graduation as possible.

That’s the charge for University staff responsible for transporting the traditional elements that make up Clemson graduation 30 miles up US-123 North from Littlejohn Coliseum to Bon Secours.

“From the very beginning, President (Jim) Clements was adamant in wanting our ceremonies to look and feel like Clemson,” said Mandy Hays, assistant vice president for Campus Life.

Kristi Cox, Pam Davis speak with a Clemson graduate during a December 2020 ceremony
Kristi Cox (left) and Pam Davis (center) speak with a graduate during a December 2020 ceremony. Both are part of the graduation planning team from Campus Reservations and Events.

Having a similar look and feel includes not only the same ramp, steps and chairs used in Littlejohn, but also detail-oriented items such as the President’s podium, college banners, ferns and palms that typically adorn the graduation stage.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the University to move May, August and December graduations to Bon Secours last semester, planners had to make significant adjustments to ensure a seamless transition. Fortunately, Clemson had a preexisting relationship with the staff at Bon Secours dating to 2015-16 when graduation ceremonies and men’s basketball games were held in the facility while Littlejohn was renovated.

“The folks at Bon Secours have been very understanding of how challenging this has been for us,” Hays said. “They’ve bent over backwards with their schedule to accommodate us.”

This time around, the Bon Secours schedule features a three-game homestand for its minor league hockey team, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, from Friday, April 30 through Sunday, May 2 — leaving just two days to prepare for Clemson’s first graduation ceremony. Three ceremonies (9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.) are scheduled each day from Wednesday, May 5 through Saturday, May 8 to accommodate graduates receiving undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees.

On Monday, May 3, Bon Secours staff will handle the floor conversion and set up 22 rows of 10 chairs for graduates — socially distanced, of course. Approximately 350 total graduates will take part in each of nine undergraduate ceremonies, with many spilling over into sections of the lower arena on the opposite end from the stage. 

Kevin Arnold, senior performing arts major, performing during a December 2020 graduation ceremony
Kevin Arnold, a senior performing arts major, is scheduled to sing the national anthem and alma mater during each of the 12 graduation ceremonies held May 5-8 at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville.

The following day, Pam Davis and her team in Campus Reservations and Events will come in and set up equipment and displays in the exact same fashion as if the event were held at Clemson. They will have already built out commencement scripts and coordinated parking access for working staff from areas such as the Registrar’s Office, Alumni Association, University Relations and ROTC.

“When we leave Tuesday at 2 p.m. everything will be as perfect as possible,” Davis said. “Wednesday morning we’ll be there bright and early for the start of 12 ceremonies.”

As a result of significantly decreased capacity inside the facility due to social distancing policies and procedures related to COVID-19, graduates are allotted a maximum of either four (undergraduates and master’s candidates) or eight guest tickets (doctoral hooding). When their names are announced, they’ll pick up a commemorative scroll from the Registrar’s Office and Tiger Paw lapel pin from President Clements — who again felt strongly graduates receive something “uniquely Clemson” as they cross the stage.

While the University desires to return the ceremonies to Littlejohn Coliseum as soon as possible, administrators are grateful for the partnership with Bon Secours. Nikki Malpass, who serves as production manager for the arena, said helping out during adverse and unusual circumstances was a “no-brainer.”

“We have always valued our relationship with Clemson University,” Malpass said. “If we could be in a position to help give graduates a live, in-person recognition they have worked hard to deserve, we were happy to lend a helping hand. Celebrating them is really important.”