April 2, 2012

Commencement: Off they go, with hundreds of helping hands

John Birney, a senior associate director in the Admissions Office at Homewood, has a unique front-row seat to the start and end of many a Johns Hopkins student’s career.

In his role in Admissions, Birney talks to constituent groups (guidance counselors, faculty, staff and others) and oversees the university’s largest recruitment territory, New York and Connecticut.

For the past six years, Birney has volunteered to work on Commencement Day. He first drove golf carts to shuttle guests from point to point on the Homewood campus, but for the past three years he’s been the lead person for one of the parking facilities.

“I’m the guy standing in the middle of the street pointing the cars where they need to go,” Birney says. “I love it. I’m the first point of contact and have a lot of interaction with the parents and family members. For one, they want to know which way are the shuttles to take them to campus.”

Each Commencement Day, hundreds of volunteers like Birney are needed to make the event hum along, according to Jill Williams, who is associate director of Special Events at Johns Hopkins and is responsible for the Commencement ceremony, held each May on the Homewood campus.

“It takes approximately 200 Johns Hopkins volunteers to pull off such a tremendous and enormous event as Commencement,” Williams says of the event. “The volunteers each year do a great job of keeping people happy and things running smoothly.”

The volunteer roles include greeters, ushers, campus guides, golf cart drivers, parking attendants, luncheon reception staff and greeters at the remote-webcast sites (Shriver, Hodson and Bloomberg halls). There’s even an “anything” category, which is as the name implies.

“We can accommodate pretty much everyone,” Williams says. “Some can’t be out in the sun, some can’t stand too long, and some just love to drive the golf carts around.”

The volunteers work in tandem with Campus Security, Plant Operations and the Special Events Office.

Volunteers typically arrive at 6:30 a.m. and leave at 2:30 p.m. To make sure that visitors can spot them, they even get a uniform, which this year will again be a white polo shirt and a blue cap.

Williams says that the campus guides, or “human arrows,” as she calls them, set the tone for the day. Each is assigned to a zone and can point visitors to wherever they need to go, whether it’s to Homewood Field, restrooms or a nearby restaurant.

“The feedback we have gotten from parents is so positive,” Williams says. “Whenever they had a question, there was someone nearby who helped them. We have the entire campus covered.”

Birney says that volunteering is a rewarding experience.

“I really like Commencement. It’s the most celebrated day,” he says. “In my job, I get to see the students coming in, so it’s so nice to watch them leave as graduates and complete their journey.”

Longtime employee Henrietta “Hank” Potter says she volunteers as a greeter to get back in touch with the students and the Homewood campus. Potter, who has been at Johns Hopkins for 30 years, currently serves as an administrative supervisor for IT@JH on the Mount Washington campus.

“For me, it’s just a fun day to see the students and meet parents who are here to watch their children graduate from college. It’s an emotional day,” Potter says. “You meet so many people in a few hours. I can’t wait to do it again.”

The Office of Special Events is currently recruiting employees to participate in Commencement Day activities. To volunteer, go to web.jhu.edu/commencement/volunteerform
.html or email commencement@jhu.edu.

For more information on the 2012 JHU Commencement, go to www.jhu.edu/commencement.