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Kevin Witham

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Brian McCoy

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Volunteering for Commencement is an annual tradition for two OHIO staffers


“It really does take a village. Without support and staff from the broader Ohio University community, it just wouldn’t happen.”

That’s how Caitlin Barnhardt described the way the Ohio University family comes together each year to ensure that the pinnacle moment in every Bobcat’s OHIO journey is both special and memorable.

Associate director for Event Management, Barnhardt’s office is responsible for managing all of the logistics related to Ohio University’s Commencement ceremonies on the Athens Campus. Spearheaded by Barnhardt, it’s an ongoing process that begins immediately after each ceremony with post-event meetings, evaluations and ideas for improvement and that kicks into high gear during spring semester in advance of the May ceremonies.

And, it’s a task that involves nearly every entity on the Athens Campus.

From the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics that hosts the ceremonies in its Convocation Center to the Facilities Department that prepares the arena to Parking and Transportation Services and the Ohio University Police Department that facilities parking and security needs, OHIO’s three annual spring Commencement ceremonies are truly a team effort.

“No matter how much work our office does, these events would not happen without the hundreds of people who give of their time and talents to make these occasions successful,” Barnhardt said.

Among those individuals are an estimated 200 OHIO employees and students who volunteer to assist at the ceremonies. The volunteers’ roles range from checking in graduates before the ceremony to handing out programs to providing directions and assistance to the graduates’ friends and family.

This year, more than 4,300 Bobcats will be recognized for their academic achievements in OHIO’s three Commencement ceremonies. According to Barnhardt, the two largest ceremonies – the Undergraduate Commencement programs that will be held Saturday – typically generate between 10,000 and 12,000 guests.

Handling the large volume of visitors to the Athens Campus is no easy task, and when it comes to volunteers, Barnhardt said the best ones are the individuals who are patient, who enjoy working with the public and who can handle a very long day.

“It’s a long day, and you really get the full spectrum of emotions from people,” Barnhardt said. “A good volunteer is someone who has an appreciation for working with the public because a lot of what they do is customer service. For me, one of the most important things is we want people to leave these events having had a really positive, good experience.”

Barnhardt has been involved in helping to plan OHIO’s Commencement ceremonies for more than 10 years – ever since she was a graduate student on the Athens Campus. Throughout those years, she and her colleagues have been able to rely on two Ohio University staff members, Kevin Witham and Brian McCoy, who have given a combined more than 40 years of service volunteering to help with Commencement.

“They are absolutely my most long-standing volunteers,” Barnhardt said of Witham and McCoy. “One of the most amazing things about them is that they’re so excited to be part of it. They’re just all in; they bring a level of excitement and energy to the process. You can tell that they really take pride in what they do and that Ohio University as an institution holds a special place in their hearts.”

A mission come full circle

Senior associate director for Undergraduate Admissions, Witham has been employed at Ohio University for more than 30 years – all of them in Admissions. For him, volunteering at OHIO’s undergraduate and graduate Commencement ceremonies is an opportunity to see his professional mission come full circle.

“In believe in Admissions we don’t just recruit freshmen and transfer students, but we recruit alumni,” Witham said. “Volunteering at Commencement I sometimes run into family members who say, ‘We saw you at a college fair, we saw you at my high school visit, or we saw you when we visited campus.’ It’s nice to have that interaction with families, but it’s also exciting to see these students finishing their programs and knowing that I helped bring those students here with the goal of finishing, and I actually get to see that happen.”

Witham can’t recall the exact number of years he’s been volunteering for Commencement, but in his 30-plus years of employment with the University he can only recall not volunteering at two Commencements – one when his niece graduated from high school and a ceremony in 1988 when he was at Commencement in another role, a graduate receiving his master’s degree.

“I just really enjoy Commencement,” Witham said, crediting much of that to his mentor, Bob Hynes, a former director of Residence and Campus Auxiliary Services who worked many Commencement ceremonies supervising the Convocation Center’s front lobby and emergency services area.

Witham assisted Hynes in that role for many years, becoming his “kind of protégé” and assuming that front lobby supervisory role when Hynes stepped down.

“Bob was great and made the job enjoyable and fun,” Witham said. “I learned from him the things that had to be done but also that these events are supposed to be light-hearted for not only visitors and guests but also those who are working there. I really enjoyed working with him and learning from him and then being able to continue his legacy.”

His role in overseeing the main entrance for the Undergraduate Commencement ceremonies begins well before the doors to the Convocation Center open for the events. Witham ensures that the front lobby is ready as guests begin to gather outside the facility. He and a team of volunteers scan the crowd, looking for individuals who due to age or physical impairment need to wait inside with one other family member rather than in line outside. They also let individuals needing to use the restroom in and out of the building as needed.

Witham remains in constant communication via a headset with Barnhardt and other Event Management staff, providing them updates on the size of the crowd gathering outside the facility and waiting for the go-head to open the doors to the arena. Once those doors are open, Witham and his team of volunteers direct all of the events’ thousands of guests into the building, making sure that guests check their strollers before entering the arena and answering a myriad of questions.

When the morning ceremony ends, Witham and his team are responsible for ensuring that people exit the facility in a timely fashion in order for the building to be prepared for the afternoon ceremony.

Witham’s assignment isn’t an easy one – you never really know what to expect.

“The challenges are the things that people challenge you on,” he explained. “A good thing about working in Admissions is you work with people, and people will challenge you on certain things.”

He recalled one Commencement ceremony when he had to interact with a woman who tried to bring a small dog into the arena. The dog ended up spending the ceremony outside with different family members coming in and out of the building to sit with the pet.

Every challenge – big or small – is worth it, though.

“Seeing the excitement of the parents and the families and the graduates – it’s actually very emotional to watch,” Witham said, noting a very special ceremony that he worked where he got to see his niece receive her diploma.

“By volunteering, I get to be there for these special moments, I get to participate in it, and I get to see it all,” he said.

An opportunity to give back

For McCoy, volunteering for Commencement is an opportunity to help his alma mater and his employer and a chance to pay it forward to the individuals who assisted him and his family when he graduated from Ohio University.

A 1994 OHIO graduate, McCoy has been employed at the University since 1996, most recently as an administrative services specialist for mechanical engineering graduate programs in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology. McCoy has volunteered for Commencement for 18 of the 19 years he’s been employed at OHIO, only missing one year in order to attend a newly adopted family retreat after adopting his son, Bud.

“As a student at Ohio University, I went through graduation, and it was something that I really enjoyed,” McCoy said. “I just look at volunteering as an opportunity to help out. I’ve seen the difference we make for our guests and the visitors who come to campus for these events.”

McCoy volunteers at both the graduate and undergraduate ceremonies and has worked the same area of Commencement since he began volunteering. He now oversees that area – the event’s limited mobility entrance. It’s an area that McCoy understands and serves in a way many others could not.

At the age of 6, McCoy was diagnosed with cancer, which resulted in an above-the-knee amputation of his right leg. Today, he has a prosthetic leg and works full-time at the University while also operating his own business.

“Who better to handle limited mobility assistance at such a large ceremony than someone with a limited mobility,” McCoy said of the work he does at Commencement. “I fully understand the limitations of coming into a building that large with a physical impairment that makes it a challenge. I’d like to think I have a little more empathy and a better understanding of their needs, and my goal is to get them where they need to go in the most efficient, least challenging way.”

In his role, McCoy mans the limited mobility entrance on the lower concourse of the Convocation Center and supervises other volunteers, many of them students, who are dispatched to areas in and around the Convocation Center. Those volunteers provide wheelchairs and other assistance to guests with limited mobility, getting them and up to one family member to accompany them inside the building as quickly as possible.

“There are times when we can have upwards of almost 30 wheelchairs in operation that are designated to specific areas throughout the Convocation Center,” he said.

The Convocation Center itself can be a challenge for individuals with physical impairments, and the number of spaces that can accommodate individuals in wheelchairs and the one family member who may accompany them is increasingly in demand.

“Because of space availability, visitors with limited mobility can only have one guest sit with them,” McCoy explained. “We have to split families up and that can create some stress and anxiety on top of the excitement of the whole day itself, but I think we and the University go above and beyond in providing accommodations to those who need it.”

Enforcing policies designed to keep this large event running safely and smoothly is a challenge for many of the Commencement volunteers, but it’s all worth it.

“I look forward to Commencement every year. The dynamics and the energy and the characteristics of every single ceremony is different,” McCoy said. “I really enjoy getting to meet new people, especially the families of international students, some of whom have flown in from halfway around the world and perhaps are seeing the University for the first time. It’s nice to be part of a University community that comes together and works together to ensure Commencement is a pleasant experience for our guests and that they leave here with lasting memories.

“I’m a firm believer in paying it forward,” McCoy added. “This is my way of giving back to those who helped during my Commencement ceremony and made it a lasting memory for me and my family.”

This special Compass series highlights the ways in which Ohio University staff and faculty are living their passion while making a difference – on campus, in the community, in their fields, and around the world.