Meet One of Columbia's Longest-Serving Commencement Volunteers: Dave Roberts
When Dave Roberts (SPS'06) first came to work for Columbia University, "Windows 95 was still three years away from being anything."
At the time, Roberts was looking for an escape from the world of publishing, but little did he know that the home he found at the university working in information technology would transform into a 30-year career.
"Publishing wasn't about the literature, it was a business," Roberts said. "But the business of the university is knowledge. Everything I was doing on the IT side, whether helping with an Excel spreadsheet or implementing a service system, point of sale system, housing system, was about educating, about research, about supporting all of those things and people. That fed into my need to be part of a bigger whole."
That keen ability to divine a system for anything, to make things run smoothly in the service of others, turned out to be an integral skill outside of the office, too, and would lead Roberts down a path to become one of the university's longest-serving volunteer at the largest, most intricate, and most celebratory event our institution puts on: Commencement.
And, goodness, if there's an event that needs systems in the service of people, it would be Commencement, which annually welcomes tens of thousands of people (graduates, friends, family, faculty, staff, and alumni) to the middle of Morningside campus.
"For me, personally, Commencement is the recognition of the culmination of the work of the students," Roberts said. "They work hard to get to this day. This is that super public acknowledgment, standing in their cap and gown in front of 20,000 people. As a volunteer, you feel the excitement that these students and families feel. I wanted to be a part of that.
"Having this experience as a volunteer, for me, was the manifestation of what my job at the university is here to provide. The students made it to this day, that means we've succeeded."
Columbia News recently sat down with Roberts to learn more about his more than 20 years of service as a Commencement volunteer.
How did you first become involved with volunteering at Commencement?
In the early '90s, Commencement was nothing like what it is now. It wasn't as large, there weren't as many graduates in a year, and there wasn't as much structure around it.
My job was in Philosophy Hall and I could just leave the building, walk across the courtyard right behind Buell Hall, and just watch the ceremony from the top of the stairs. It was super casual.
But after 2001, there was a move to have a bit more control of the process for safety reasons, and the event was getting larger. I worked for a division at the time called Student Services, which drove the Commencement process. The vice president at that time, Lisa Hogarty, asked if anyone in the department would volunteer. So, I did.
I worked at one of the gates, at 115th and Amsterdam, as a gate captain, where I checked attendee tickets.
What has changed since you started volunteering?
The Commencement process has totally morphed from that smaller-scale event into what it is now, which requires months and months of planning and constructing the day. The number of volunteers has also really expanded to feed that.
Digital ticket scanning started around ten years ago. Prior to that, it was all paper tickets. At the 114th general admission gates, it is a massive undertaking when the street itself is shut down and stanchions loop around to prevent the line to check tickets from getting too long. That's where my latest role was.
What made you keep coming back over the years to volunteer?
My two favorite days at the university are Commencement and new-student move-in. There are families that are nervous and they don't know what the process is going to be for move-in, but making the experience positive is important and hearing feedback from families saying "move-in here was so smooth — I just dropped my other kid off at another school last week, and it was a disaster" makes all the hard work worth it.
It is chaos, but you've got everything arranged and managed. That is awesome. Knowing you are a person's first entrance to the university and you made it a positive one, sets the groundwork for what the possibilities for their education and time at Columbia are.
I really like being the bookend of a student's first arrival on campus and then sending them off after they completed what they came to do.
What are you looking for on your volunteer team?
On the surface, it is super tedious: 20,000 people need tickets scanned. But on a deeper level, you feed into the energy, you talk to people, you prep them, and you sense the excitement for families, they just can't wait.
Volunteers come back year after year: "No, I want to be on 114th St., I want to interact with the people. There's nowhere I'd rather be."
This is a positive day. Even if frustrations are running high, and someone can't find their tickets and they're freaking out they are going to miss the big event, just smile. "Oh, let me help you with that." We have a whole system set up to help people who are struggling.
It's about providing the best customer service you can, and we look for people who are able to do that. There are tons of different roles for people, whether you want to be up-front or more in the background.
Is there one special moment over your 20 years of service that sticks out to you?
Definitely the year President Barack Obama (CC'83) was speaking. Security was as tight as it was ever going to get — the Secret Service was everywhere, you know, being the President of the United States and all.
A parent came up and they just did not have their tickets and they were freaking out, of course, they would be! I just remember feeling that getting this resolved in the moment was more important to them than anything that I had on my task list for the day. And we were able to resolve it. That felt good. It is as simple as that.
Do you have any tips for new volunteers?
People feed off your positivity. Everything else flows from there.
When somebody is upset and escalating, remember that it is not about you. Their frustrations have nothing to do with you personally. It is rare, but all you can do is deal with it in the most friendly manner possible.
Really understand the flow of volunteer work, and who the right people to go to are in any given situation. There is training for that.
With any large event, 80 percent of the battle is having a structure in place, having the right team leaders invested, and being ready to deal with the nitty-gritty details. You are part of a larger structure and there are people there to support you.
Finally: What was your own graduation experience like?
My undergraduate ceremony was quite impersonal. It was the '80s, campus life was different.
But, I did get my Master's degree from Columbia in 2006, in Technology Management.
You can bet I absolutely walked in the procession and I brought all my classmates along with me. When else do you get to be in a crowd of 20,00 people celebrating your accomplishments? It was great to experience it from the side of being a graduate.
After 30 years with the university, Dave Roberts retired in 2022. But that doesn't mean you won't see him at the gates come future Commencement ceremonies.
"I am still excited about being a volunteer after all these years," Roberts said.