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An uncommon commencement

May 3, 2020

ASU's spring 2020 ceremony — reimagined with a virtual format — to feature first cohort of graduates through partnership with Uber

Editor’s note:  This story is being highlighted in ASU Now’s year in review. Read more top stories from 2020.

Arizona State University's May 11 commencement will celebrate many firsts and milestones: the university's first virtual ceremony because of the novel coronavirus, the first graduating cohort of ASU's partnership with ride-share company Uber, and the first time thousands of Sun Devils will have a chance to turn their tassels from the air-conditioned comfort of their own homes.

Of the nearly 16,400 graduates — projected to be the largest class yet — approximately 4,200 are ASU Online students, and almost 700 earned their degree through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan partnership. And of those graduating this May, nearly 6,600 will do so with honors, the most ever for an individual class. 

The graduation rolls also count Uber scholars for the first time, with five members of the first cohort earning their degree.

MORE: Meet outstanding grads from across ASU

The virtual ceremony will highlight accomplishments of both undergraduate and graduate students.

"Obviously this is a departure from our usual format, but ASU's desire to celebrate our students remains the same," said ASU President Michael M. Crow, who will provide keynote remarks. "Our students have worked hard and demonstrated amazing resilience to reach this milestone. We are excited to recognize their achievements and acknowledge those who helped them thrive."

This graduating class has much to reflect on. They:

  • Helped ASU make a historic pivot from in-person classes to interactive remote learning. Some 12,000 of the more than 16,000 graduates were in on-campus classes before the shift.
  • Joined the fight against the coronavirus, whether by volunteering in their home cities, in research working on virus-fighting tools, or by continuing to study, learn and keep the university moving forward.
  • Were part of a staggering shift that included 84,457 on-campus students participating in 4,918 courses in Canvas. 
  • Showed their resilience. Zoom sessions alone totaled 437,790 this semester, not to mention 1,929 Slack workspaces and more than 5.45 million Slack messages. Classes, lecture series, workouts, mindfulness sessions and even athlete training sessions had to move to a digital environment.

The May 11 ceremony will also include congratulatory messages from former ASU commencement speakers, notable alumni and the undergraduate student government president. A “year in review” video will highlight big wins from the football field to the research lab and spotlight student achievement, university awards, campus life, service projects and more.

In addition to the virtual ceremony, graduates will have the opportunity to attend future ceremonies in person if they choose in December 2020 or May 2021. Colleges and schools will also host virtual convocations for their graduates and highlight their outstanding graduates May 11 and 12. At those smaller ceremonies, there will be a special moment for each graduate with their name, photo, degree and a comment from them about their future.

The links to all ceremonies will be available at by May 9; ceremonies can be viewed at anytime after they premier on May 11 or 12. 

First Uber cohort takes a smooth ride towards graduation

Man in cap and gown with son

Randy Clarke and his 1-year-old son, Jodye, in front of Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium. Clarke is one of a handful of people from the first cohort of the Uber and ASU education partnership who will graduate on May 11. Clarke, an Uber driver since 2015, will receive degrees in political science and communication.

The ASU and Uber Education Partnership formed in November 2018 provides a pathway to a fully funded college degree to eligible Uber drivers through ASU Online, or nondegree courses, such as entrepreneurship and English language learning, through ASU’s Continuing and Professional Education Program.

The program was offered to drivers who completed at least 3,000 rides and achieved gold, diamond or platinum status on Uber Pro. The partnership also allows drivers to pass tuition coverage to spouses, domestic partners, children, siblings, parents, legal guardians and dependents.

Five members of its first cohort will earn their degrees this May.

Twenty-five-year-old Randy Clarke has been driving for Uber since 2015 and to date has accumulated 15,000 rides. He was already attending ASU and made the switch from attending classes on the Tempe campus to learning online to take advantage of the tuition program. He said the learning format suited him well, with the exception that his social life has suffered for the last two years.

“I studied from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and then drove at night, which is where the real money is anyway,” said Clarke, who double majored in political science and communication in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Staying at home also enabled me to watch my 1-year-old son. This all happened at the right time.”

Clarke said after graduation, he intends to start a multimedia production company, producing videos, podcasts and articles focusing on how government works and bias in the media.

Forty-five-year-old Kelly Hnasko took advantage of the program through her husband, who is an Uber driver. Hnasko is a paralegal at a boutique firm in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and will receive her bachelor’s degree in English through The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She said the program was helpful in two ways.

“We have two children. One is in college, and the other just finished,” Hnasko said. “That was extremely helpful in terms of finances. The other reason I did it was to prepare for my next step in life. I believe it will broaden my career path.”

The program was also a financial lifeline for Gabrielle Messina, a Monterey County, California, resident who will receive her Bachelor of Arts in interdisciplinary studies from the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts this month.

“My Uber experience was a serious blessing because I was so overwhelmed with student debt,” said Messina, who is getting her degree courtesy of her dad, an Uber driver. “It made me so incredibly happy that my dad could share his education benefits with me.”

Messina said she intends on pursuing her master’s degree in psychology with plans to become a counselor. She said she is thankful to ASU and Uber for providing her with a pathway to graduation.

“I am still blown away that this happened,” she said. “I will forever be grateful.”

Reporter , ASU News


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Graduation name reader expands range for ASU’s first virtual ceremonies

May 1, 2020

Peter Lafford has prepared more than 100,000 names for graduation since 1995

You could say Peter Lafford is a bit of a name-dropper. And it’s a habit that’s made a good impression on graduates of Arizona State University year after year. 

Over the last 25 years, Lafford, a multilingual technology professional, has been spending the final weeks of the fall and spring semesters at ASU reading and recording the names of graduating students preparing to cross the stage at their college convocations. This year is no different for Lafford, but at the same time, it is — a virtual distinction is putting his dulcet tones to the test.

In a typical year, Lafford’s voice can be heard announcing roughly 3,000 names across various graduation ceremonies at ASU. But with 2020 unfolding as anything but a typical year, Lafford is expanding his announcing range sixfold — to the tune of 18,000 names. Lafford took on the challenge when ASU made a quick pivot to honor the Class of 2020 with the university's very first online ceremonies, transformed into such due to safety concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Under usual conditions, as in years past, names earmarked for graduation are called through a mix of live and prerecorded announcements. This year, all names have been prerecorded for the virtual ceremonies, and Peter Lafford can stake claim to more than 80% of those recordings. 

Lafford recorded 15,000 of the 18,000 names that will be announced on May 11 and 12. It took 90 hours, gallons of water and packets of throat lozenges for Lafford to complete this breathtaking assignment as the graduating names became available for recording with the opening of the virtual ceremony website on April 6.

Peter Lafford talks about what it's like to record names for ASU convocation. Here, he's pictured announcing graduate names at the 2014 ASU Convocation. Photo by Charlie Leight. Audio by Suzanne Wilson.

Having a mastery of four languages — English, Spanish, French and German — helps Lafford deliver the goods, but he is quick to point out that there can never be too much preparation for the size and scale of this monumental occasion.

A company called MarchingOrder has been a preferred pronunciation partner for Lafford for 11 of the 25 years he has been calling names at graduation ceremonies. But for as many names as he has prepared for announcement over the decades — approximately 100,000 as of May 2020 — Lafford says there will always be tongue-twisting name challenges that will require more prep than others. He has seen his fair share of those — Gwendolyn Kamakaukapunanaulaukalani Emmsley (GWEN-doh-lin KA-ma-KA-u-ka-PU-na-na-u-LA-u-ka-LA-ni EMMZ-lee), a student from Hawaii, among them. Lafford says that he memorized the name to be ready for the English major’s convocation stage crossing at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences ceremony in 2010 — and that was before MarchingOrder introduced the option for students to record their names for pronunciation.

Spreadsheets, emails and voice messages were the order of the day before MarchingOrder, according to Lafford. He says he and the other readers would meet to go over spreadsheets of names, email students for clarification and ask those with more challenging name pronunciations to leave a voice message for phonetic accuracy.

Live ceremonies got much easier for name readers when ASU commencement planners brought MarchingOrder on board in 2009. That was also the year Lafford read graduate names to his biggest commencement audience to date. Some 60,000 attendees packed ASU’s Sun Devil Stadium to celebrate the graduates and listen to President Barack Obama deliver the commencement address. It was an experience Lafford describes as "an honor."

graduate in cap and gown silhouette by sunset

Photo by Deanna Dent.

What is still an honor for Lafford after a quarter of a century of name-calling is putting a smile on graduates’ faces after announcing their names as conferred. He imagines that the announcements he will make for this year’s virtual ceremonies will be even more meaningful for graduates as they will be able to visit the dedicated web page, find their slides, download the announcement clips and share them on social media.

So while the commencement with President Obama may have been his largest live audience, this year’s virtual ceremony has the potential to reach an even wider global audience online.

There is also personal satisfaction for Lafford in reading names, challenging and not-so challenging, at commencement ceremonies year after year. The now emeritus associate research professional for ASU’s University Technology Office says he doesn’t mind coming out of retirement for these seasonal announcement jobs.

Lafford, who launched his name calling vocation by stepping in last-minute to fill in for his wife, Spanish and linguistics professor Barbara Lafford in 1995, says reading so many diverse names every year at commencement offers a window into different cultures —  and it gives his linguistic experience “a good workout.”

Top photo: Lafford's recording space for the 15,000 names that will be read at this year's online convocation. Photo courtesy Peter Lafford

Suzanne Wilson

Sr. Media Relations Officer , ASU Media Enterprise