When the UCLA College commencement ceremonies unfold at Pauley Pavilion Friday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Mary Ries will be there, witnessing the culmination of months of behind-the-scenes work to create a once-in-their-lifetime celebration for about 5,600 graduating seniors and their families.
To pull off this major feat, the administrative coordinator works side by side with her supervisor in the Office of Undergraduate Education, Vice Provost and Assistant Dean Susan Swarts, who will be celebrating her own graduation when she receives her Ph.D. Saturday from the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
To find out how Ries survives this task year after year, UCLA Newsroom’s Judy Lin asked her for a few details for this edited Q&A.
How long have you been the behind-the-scenes coordinator for College commencement?
This is my fifth year. I’m an organizer by nature, so at first, the prospect of a new, big event looked exciting — but also daunting. The excitement and challenge won the day, given that it’s not just me. I’m working with a team of colleagues from special events, information technology, parking services, the UCLA Central Ticket Office, and marketing and communications, among many others.
When does planning for commencement commence?
There are some discussions and planning in the fall, but the true planning begins in December, with an update of the College commencement website, which includes information on everything from dates and venues for the two College ceremonies to details on nearly 60 additional commencement ceremonies all across campus and FAQs on ordering caps and gowns.
How do you keep the whole thing rolling and not unraveling?
Years ago, my brother provided me the “6P” motto: “Prior planning prevents piss poor performance.” With that in mind, I am very conscious of keeping on track with multiple timelines. For example, in May, we’re already in the second week of processing the thousands of guest tickets students order online. At the same time, I’m starting to contact all the graduates to make sure we get their names right in the printed program.
Do some things get done without your having to oversee them?
A few years ago, a group of staff who were in UCLA’s Professional Development Program did a project where they handled auditioning and selecting the student speakers and soloists who sing the national anthem at the two ceremonies. The person who led this group, Joseph Brown from the department of political science, has volunteered to handle this every year since.
What’s one of the hardest things you deal with?
On Thursday, the day before commencement, my phone rings incessantly from the time I walk into my office — with calls from graduates having last-minute panic attacks about their tickets, everything from “I haven’t ordered my tickets” to “I left my tickets at home, and I live two hours away.” I’ve heard it all. My first request to callers is to take a deep breath — we will work it out. And we do.
How’s your sleep the night before commencement?
Not bad, actually. Given that the day before is my crazy-busy day, I’m usually exhausted that night and sleep like a baby. It’s in the two weeks before commencement that I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about problems or processing tasks. One night this week I woke at 3 a.m., thinking about a question that suddenly came up. I had to tell myself, “No, no, Mary, just go back to sleep.”
When the big day dawns, how do you fortify yourself to get through it physically and mentally?
With a big cup of caffeinated coffee! I’ll come to work with a cup of coffee from home, then have another cup in the morning and one more in the afternoon. I live on caffeine.
After the graduates march in, a “stage party” of faculty, administrators and other special guests seat themselves onstage. Do you give them any advice for getting through that long ceremony?
Don’t drink beverages right before going onstage. And use the restroom 10 to 15 minutes before the processional begins. It will be your last chance for two hours!
Have you ever seen commencement unfold exactly as planned?
There are always bumps. Last year, the music to accompany the procession of the stage party was missing for the first ceremony. Thanks to iTunes, the song was bought, downloaded and ready for the second ceremony. Hardly anyone noticed that bump. What the students and their families and guests see is a celebration.
When the commencement ceremonies end and everyone has left, what do you do?
That evening, I celebrate. My plans are already in place: dinner with a colleague at Soleil Westwood, one of my favorite restaurants. On the weekend, I collapse … and then I take Monday and Tuesday off!
Did you attend your own college commencement? Was it memorable?
Yes, in 1984 at Cal State Northridge — in front of the Oviatt Library. I remember a lot of people who were there, but I don’t remember the keynote speaker. After the event, I had a small party at my apartment with friends, my mom and sisters.