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ISU grad celebrates

Tricky last name? ISU’s commencement readers are ready

About a week before commencement, Laura Kennedy ’86 paces up and down the hallways of WGLT going over hundreds of names. Brown and Palmer are a breeze. Czuczor, Duong and LeSueur, not so much.

That’s why the commencement reader rehearses, even reading through her spreadsheet of 200 names in a corner of the women’s locker room in Redbird Arena shortly before the ceremony begins.

“I’m nervous about it. I want to do well. I want these students to have this moment,” the WGLT producer and host said. “When you get the name right, you see this big smile on their face.”

Laura Kennedy

Commencement reader and WGLT staff member Laura Kennedy.

When a name is mispronounced, it’s apparent too, said Lance Lippert, a School of Communication associate professor who’s been doing this for 10 years, along with 35 years as an announcer. Even with his experience “a number of things can go wrong reading a name in front of a microphone.”

Students can spell their name phonetically on cards handed to the readers but a lot of them don’t take advantage of that. Lippert occasionally leans into the student for a little help. Ninety-eight percent of the time he gets it right, but when he misses, it’s painful for him.

“Maybe it’s 10 syllables and I attack it and end up with 20 syllables,” he said. “It’s a challenge. I’m from Kansas.”

When he stumbles, he’ll watch to see where the student sits so he can follow up, apologizing to the family. He’s been asked to pose for family photos.

“We all care deeply,” he said. “I don’t mind embarrassing myself but it’s so important to get that name right. I toss myself on the sword.”

When the University still had printed phone books, Kennedy used to call students, hoping to hear their name on a recorded message. Faculty and departmental advisors are also called on to help. After reading for about 12 years, Kennedy has picked up the rhythm of some languages, like Greek and Italian, but she’s still working on Thai names. When she nails a difficult one, she may get a fist bump or a handshake.

Readers also have to keep their focus while dealing with distractions, from cheers to dances across the stage, even a back flip. As the first hour blends into the second, the crowd gets restless and air horns come out. Pausing for disruptions so the next name isn’t lost is important.

Commencement Coordinator Terri Haerr ’93 said the readers do an “amazing job” of keeping the ceremonies moving smoothly at a quick pace. Two readers alternate reading names, pausing only a second or two in between for applause. There are always two voices, one male, one female.

“When you get the name right, you see this big smile on their face.” —Laura Kennedy

Amy Hurd, director of the Graduate School, reads the doctoral candidates’ names and dissertation titles so she has to pronounce words like “stoichiometric” and “discursive oppositionality.” It gets easier every year, she said. “I’m not a scientist but my boss is a chemistry professor so I go to him and then I practice.”

Reader Sally Parry, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, said her theater background helps her stay composed while moving through a few hundred names. Occasionally she’s thrown a curve, like when a student has doodled all over the name card, added a nickname or decided to add an honor.

Readers have to project their voices in an arena that swallows them up. And they have to be able to roll with last-minute additions, like students who show up for the wrong ceremony.

Pete Guither reads names

In back, Pete Guither, recently retired assistant dean in the College of Fine Arts, waits to read the next name at his college’s commencement ceremony.

“Sometimes students get CAS and CAST mixed up,” Haerr said. “Their parents are already there. As long as they have a cap and gown, they can participate.”

Ceremonies can get emotional for the readers. For Kennedy, it’s announcing the newly commissioned Army ROTC students. “I have tears in my eyes. I really have to control my emotions. I feel so proud.”

Unai Zaballa-Clares, a graduate student in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, will walk this May. He understands challenging names because he runs into the same issues with his students. “For me, English names are sometimes difficult,” he said.

All the readers said it’s an honor to help with commencement.

“I love doing it,” Kennedy said. “It makes me feel really connected to the University. I’m a graduate so this is one of my ways of giving back.”

Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.

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