This Graduate Wears Two Hats at Commencement

Georgette Jasen
May 09, 2019

Mary Waldorf has worked on every Columbia University Commencement since 2012, now she’s also one of the graduates.

Executive director for events administration, Waldorf oversees facilities-related logistics for the multiple graduation ceremonies on the Morningside campus each spring, while supporting the objectives of others on campus. This year, she will receive a master’s degree in public administration from the School of International and Public Affairs.

“I’m seeing Commencement from two sides,” she said. “I know what goes into it and how the University wants it to happen, and I feel celebrated as a student, a graduate. I hope others feel that way, that it’s a memorable moment for everyone.”

Waldorf had a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and master’s in counseling from the University of Scranton when she joined Columbia in 2008 as an assistant dean of students in the School of General Studies. With events-planning experience at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and, before that, at Wilkes, moving to Columbia’s Facilities and Operations Department in 2012, first  as director of work management and scheduling, was a natural fit. She provides support for thousands of events on campus each year.

Planning for Commencement begins soon after the previous year’s festivities, picks up speed in January and reaches a fever pitch each April. As a member of the Commencement Core Team led by the president’s office, Waldorf determines what equipment is needed and when it has to be in place and also coordinates with multiple departments to ensure Commencement preparations remain on schedule while working to avoid conflicts with other campus activities and events.  She compares her role during Commencement week to a conductor of a symphony orchestra. “It’s quite a production,” she said.

When the preparations begin in earnest, she works closely with teams within Facilities and outside contractors to ensure they stay ahead of delivery and set-up schedules.  She makes sure barriers are in place to limit pedestrian traffic while bleachers are installed, temporary ramps are ready for deliveries, electricians prepare power for audio-visual equipment, teams are in place to distribute signage and programs, and more. As the number of graduates has grown, the bleachers had to be reconfigured and more space was needed for guests, so there are now overflow viewing areas in the Dodge Physical Fitness Center and in an auditorium in the International Affairs Building. She keeps track of it all on a giant, multi-hued spreadsheet, with a different color for each department—purple for facilities, yellow and green for outside contractors, dark blue for technical support, and so on.

The night before the campus-wide Commencement ceremony is the busiest, and Waldorf is usually on campus until at least 11 p.m. to work out last minute kinks. Last year, a storm sent chairs flying and branches tumbling from trees. Putting things back together was almost like starting over, she recalled, and the work wasn’t finished until 5 a.m.

She enrolled in SIPA’s executive MPA program in 2016, with a focus on management and finance. “I wanted something to take me out of my comfort zone,” said Waldorf, who is 39. “I did it to challenge myself and continue to develop in my current role.”

The executive MPA program was rigorous, “what you would expect at Columbia,” she said. Her classmates were working professionals from all over the world with eclectic backgrounds from the public and private sectors who brought diverse viewpoints to the classroom.

She said she appreciates the opportunities and the challenges that come with living in New York and working at Columbia. “It’s hard to imagine living or working anywhere else, I would be bored,” said the Binghamton, N.Y. native. “You can’t be bored at Columbia University, or in New York City.”

At the May 19 ceremony for SIPA graduates, Waldorf’s father, her brother and sister-in-law will come from upstate New York to watch her get her newest diploma.

She’ll be wearing a cap and gown as she receives her degree. She’ll also have a cell phone in one hand, a two-way radio in the other, and will take an aisle seat among the graduates, just in case she needs to hurry off to resolve a problem for other ceremonies.