New amenities, challenges highlight Commencement on Mall

For students, parents, faculty and staff who have attended a GW Commencement before, this year’s ceremony on the National Mall will look very different.

Last June, the National Park Service informed GW that the Ellipse, which the University has used for the last 13 years as the Commencement ceremony site, would not be available due to construction. After surveying students, parents, faculty and staff, the University decided to hold Commencement on the National Mall and began planning an event for more than 20,000 people at a new location.

This year’s Commencement will include large screen televisions for the audience, more buses to transport attendees to the event and a projected $150,000 additional price tag from previous years’ Commencement budgets.

Although the total cost of Commencement cannot be tallied until after the event, GW will probably spend about $500,000, an increase from the about $350,000 that is usually spent for the event, according to Vice President of Communications Mike Freedman.

Although GW has provided buses for transportation to Commencement in previous years, because this year’s location is about 10 blocks farther away than the Ellipse, the University is expecting more guests to use a bus service to and from the May 21 event.

The big screen televisions, however, are an entirely new addition to the Commencement festivities.

“The Ellipse is a relatively short and wide location putting the audience reasonably close to the staging area,” Freedman said. “The National Mall is longer and narrower meaning some guests will be farther away from the stage.”

“The lion’s share of additional expense was not in dollars, but rather energy for time spent scoping out, locking down and planning Commencement on the National Mall,” Freedman wrote in an e-mail last week.

This spring, the National Park Service informed GW that the construction on the Ellipse was being postponed and that this year’s Commencement could still be held on the Ellipse, but Freedman said GW decided to stick with the National Mall for logistical purposes.

“We surveyed the situation and determined that with construction underway around the Ellipse, we would be much better off staying the course and having Commencement on the National Mall,” Freedman said.

The delay in the Ellipse construction schedule means it is likely that the site will not be available for next year’s Commencement either, Freedman said.

“There is a distinct possibility we will not be back on the Ellipse next year because the construction will be in full force, if the schedule holds,” Freedman said. “That would make this year’s efforts on the National Mall even more worth it, as we will have planned it once already.”

In addition to the extra strain of booking the National Mall, the Commencement planning team also had to secure a back-up venue at the Verizon Center, formerly the MCI Center, as they have done for the past five years.

According to Freedman, the Verizon Center is the only indoor location in D.C. that can accommodate the more than 20,000 expected attendees.

“We say Commencement will take place on the National Mall rain or shine. But lightning will force us indoors, as would an emergency situation in Washington other than weather,” Freedman said.

Senior Aaron Huertas will address his classmates at the celebration and does not think that speaking at the National Mall will be less exciting than speaking on the Ellipse with the White House as a backdrop.

“I’m going to be projected onto a jumbo television,” he said. “I’m not nervous now but I know I will be really nervous the night before and immediately preceding (Commencement).”

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