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GSU commencement to bring cross-town traffic
College-specific events in Savannah and Statesboro; university-wide, but no ‘walk,’ at Paulson Stadium
In this file photo from 2018, Bethany Ryan, 22, of Ft. Ludlow, Washington, does a little graduation dance for her family in the stands during Georgia Southern's 2018 Spring Commencement at Paulson Stadium.

The official, announced plan for Georgia Southern University’s spring graduation will have hundreds of students who completed their studies on the Statesboro campus travel to Savannah if they want to hear their names called, while hundreds of graduates from the Armstrong campus travel to Statesboro.

College-specific ceremonies for the five subject-area colleges headquartered on the Statesboro campus — but which also have students in Savannah and often in Hinesville as well — will be held over the course of two days, May 10-11, inside Hanner Fieldhouse. Meanwhile, ceremonies for the three colleges headquartered on the Armstrong campus in Savannah will be held May 10 at the Savannah Convention Center. Only in these ceremonies will individual students’ names be called so they can walk across the stage and receive diploma covers.

“The real goal that we had in looking at this was to enhance the students’ experience,” said GS Vice President for Enrollment Management Amy Ballagh, Ed.D. “It was really important for us to maintain that individual recognition for students, because they deserve that moment, they worked hard for it, their families want to hear their name and they want to watch them cross the stage, and we want to provide that moment for them.”

Paulson ‘pomp’

In addition, one university-wide ceremony is planned for Paulson Stadium in Statesboro the morning of Saturday, May 11. However, graduates’ names will not be called during this “stand and confer” ceremony, Ballagh confirmed. Instead, each of the eight colleges will be asked to stand as a group for the conferring of degrees by the university president.

Freedom, the bald eagle, is also slated to fly over the stadium, where there will be a guest speaker.

“No, there won’t be individual recognition at the university-wide ceremony,” Ballagh said in an interview Thursday. “That ceremony is going to be more of the pomp-and-circumstance ceremony.”

The university-wide ceremony will also feature special recognitions, the commissioning of Reserve Officer Training Corps graduates as Army officers being one example.

This spring’s graduation will cap Georgia Southern’s first full academic year as a three-campus university created by the January 2018 consolidation with the former Armstrong State University. Georgia Southern now has more than 26,000 students, but the two universities had previously handled graduations of about as many students separately in their campuses’ hometowns. University officials expect about 4,000 students to be eligible for graduation this spring and summer, and all are eligible to participate in these ceremonies, Ballagh said.

Not ‘campus-based’

A 16-member committee of university-level administrators, a few deans and one academic department chair began work last June and developed two options for spring graduation. Option 1 was this announced “college-based” plan. Option 2 was a “campus-based” commencement. The university president’s cabinet, including the vice presidents, unanimously chose Option 1, said GS Communications Director Jennifer Wise.

Ballagh, a member of both the committee and the cabinet, oversees offices directly concerned with students’ graduating. When asked if unity among the campuses also was a goal of the graduation planning, she answered with the statement about the real goal being to enhance students’ experience.

“Making this change enables us to do that in a way that actually makes that moment better,” she continued. “Their families know when they’re going to walk across the stage and they’re not rushed across the stage because we’re not held to some of the time constraints that we were for some of the large ceremonies.”

Some of the larger university-wide ceremonies with individual graduates’ names called were lasting as long as two and a half to three hours. The goal is for the college-specific ceremonies to be done in an hour and a half, she said.

Crossover travel

A December summary of the two options stated pros and cons for both. One noted “con,” or downside, of the chosen Option 1 was that approximately 375 Armstrong campus graduates, or 43 percent of all graduates from that campus, would have to travel to Statesboro to participate in a ceremony, while approximately 550 Statesboro campus graduates, or 33 percent, will have to travel to Savannah if they want to hear their names called.

Another listed downside of this plan is that family and friends of multiple graduates from different colleges would have to attend multiple ceremonies to see them graduate individually.

A frequently asked question for university officials has been whether any special transportation will be provided, at least for the graduates themselves, between Savannah and Statesboro.

“The students of course have asked about that one as well,” Ballagh said. “We’re exploring transportation options right now, and we need to gauge the interest of the students who might want to sign up for transportation. So we’re developing a plan for that now.”

Some stated “pros,” or advantages of the college-specific ceremonies include a reduction in overflow concerns and in the need for assigning students a limited number of guest tickets.  The use of tickets had been considered for the previous single-campus, pre-consolidation Statesboro fall ceremonies at Hanner Fieldhouse, prompting a student-requested move to Paulson Stadium instead.

Under the approved plan, no tickets would be required for the university-wide ceremony at Paulson. “Some college-specific ceremonies may require tickets,” states the university commencement website’s frequently-asked questions page. Which if any will do so remains to be decided, Wise said.

This wasn’t a listed downside, but the plan gives the Statesboro-campus graduates an option that Savannah-campus graduates won’t have, of remaining at their home campus while participating in the university-wide ceremony. But for Statesboro-campus graduates in Armstrong-based colleges – namely the College of Education, the Waters College of Health Professions and the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health – attending only the Paulson ceremony would mean giving up the opportunity to hear their names announced  and “walk.”

Listed advantages of the rejected campus-based option included the “wow factor” of having a “huge group of graduates” at Paulson, that it would be easier to standardize and have three events compared to nine, that this would demand fewer resources and that the transition would be easier.

But disadvantages considered for campus-based ceremonies included limited room for growth in the currently available venues and a need to have two spring ceremonies for the Statesboro campus to avoid an overly long program, the December summary states. When held at Hanner Fieldhouse, even the ceremony for students receiving graduate degrees was nearing capacity, the document states, noting that the number of faculty participants had to be limited last spring.

Under the approved plan, graduate students will participate in the same college-specific ceremonies as students receiving bachelors’ degrees. Whether these ceremonies will have a guest speaker will be decided by the dean of each college, said Ballagh, who suggested this might be a former graduate or other close affiliate of the college giving a five-minute speech.

The plan for multiple ceremonies this spring also is meant to set the pattern for fall commencement and the foreseeable future, she said.

Student input?

Asked how students and parents were given input on the decision, Ballagh referred to committee contact with the university’s Student Government Association.

“The committee actually reached out to SGA representatives to get some feedback from the students as we were developing these proposals, and so we were able to get some feedback from them through that process, and that came back to the committee,” she said.

But The George-Anne, a student newspaper based on campus and not affiliated with the Statesboro Herald, has been reporting on criticism of the SGA leadership by other students for failing to inform them of the proposals before the decision was made.

Dozens of students lined up to air concerns about the graduation plans at an SGA meeting Wednesday on the Statesboro campus, The George-Anne reported. The student paper’s Thursday story also quoted an SGA leader from the Armstrong campus as saying the SGA executive board there had been “sworn to confidentiality” on the grounds that the administration would not trust the student leaders again.

The George-Anne also reported that the SGA’s Armstrong and Liberty campus division introduced an SGA resolution to ask for a new commencement plan to be created with input from a committee made up equally of students and faculty.

“The resolution has not been received by the administration because it was only introduced and not voted on,” Wise said Friday. “Once it’s voted on, if it passes then it will be put up to the administration.”

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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