Commencement BTS hero

All Access: ​Go Behind the Scenes of CSU Commencement

See the ceremonies through the eyes of event staff.


Nearing the end of her third consecutive 16-hour day, CSU Dominguez Hills​ University Ceremonies and Events Specialist Estela Melendez jokes with her team about who has the most steps on their smart watches. She has just over 28,000 and her colleagues, Kim Larson and Sara Napoli, aren't far behind her.

In fact, between one day of rehearsal and two days of back-to-back commencement ceremonies, each of them walked about 62,700 steps, or 23.5 miles—just shy of a marathon. For reference, the average person walks 3,000-4,000 steps per day, according to the Mayo Clinic.

During the academic year, University Ceremonies and Events staff organize donor, community, staff and alumni events, campus​-wide celebrations, public ceremonies, ceremonial ribbon-cuttings and other high-profile events. But commencement is the biggest deal around here. It's the largest event by far, and the one with the most visibility amongst university leadership, graduates, their guests and members of the public.

“Commencement is also our only opportunity to directly work with and serve our students, to put a face and a name to why we do what we do," Melendez says. “When we interact with the students, their stories—especially those of being a first-generation studenthit a little closer to home."

Behind the scenes, Melendez and her team handle spills, leaks, nose bleeds, panic attacks, potential rain, late arrivals and even forgotten master's hoods and misplaced sashes. And they do it all seamlessly, making their university and its leadership proud.

It's an event more than seven months in the making, and to thousands of CSU Dominguez Hills students and their loved ones, it's the only one that matters. See what CSU commencement is like from the perspective of those putting on the event.

a group of college students sitting in an auditorium

Weeks before commencement ceremonies begin, students are invited to attend a "Commencement 101" session hosted by University Ceremonies and Events staff with the help of the CSU Dominguez Hills Alumni Association. Staff hold about a dozen of these sessions to provide students with pertinent commencement details and answer any questions they may have.

CSU Dominguez Hills photographer Matt Brown has spent much of his 30-plus-year career shooting sports games and events like the Olympics, and he draws upon those experiences when planning how to document six commencement ceremonies in just two days, shown in the sketches above. “Commencement is our Super Bowl," Brown says. "It's where we get 99% of our marketing photos."

stadium before stadium after  

All six of CSU Dominguez Hills' commencement ceremonies take place in the Dignity Health Sports Park Tennis Stadium, pictured here set up for a tennis match (left) and for commencement (right). It takes about 84 hours from load in to load out to transform the stadium.

a woman kneeling writing something on tape on the floor

Estela Melendez and her teamwhich consists of herself, Kim Larson, Sara Napoli and 98 volunteersprep the stage before each ceremony, placing marks and water bottles for members of the platform party and switching out schedules and scripts. Fun fact: Larson came out of retirement this year to help with one more commencement season and Napoli was hired on just three days prior to the events!

“I'm nervous, but I'm just hoping to speak from my heart and to encourage people, to let them know that this is just the beginning." Mirka Trejo Parra reflects on her university experience as she gets ready in the Stadium Club with other members of the platform​​ party. Parra was selected to be the student speaker for her major's commencement ceremony Saturday, June 20.

two men shaking hands posing for a photo

The platform party participates in all six ceremonies and includes the campus president and their cabinet, deans of the university's six colleges, Associated Students, Inc. president and student and invited speakers, among others. Pictured here: CSU Dominguez Hills President Thomas Parham (left) and California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who served as a commencement speaker.

College of Business Administration and Public Policy faculty members Marie Palladini (left) and Theodore Byrne get ready to celebrate their graduating students. The hat Palladini wears is called a graduation tam and the purple and blue garments they wear are doctoral hoods. Faculty members join the platform party in their procession into the stadium.

a graduate posing for a selfie with president parham  

Graduating students enter through the tennis stadium tunnel and volunteers and participants like CSU Dominguez Hills Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Spagna,​ pictured here, will do almost anything to get guests hyped for their debut. “We want the crowd going crazy when those students walk through the tunnel," Kim Larson says. “We want them to feel the excitement."

a bull mascot playing with a child  

The university's mascot, Teddy the Toro, is present before and during all six ceremonies to hype up the crowd and ​interact with graduates. Though not a real bull, Teddy does have handlers—including University Ambassador for Enrollment Services Con'Searra Howard—whose job it is to make sure Teddy is comfortable, even going so far as to provide shoulder rubs and adjust the costume.

graduates and a man with a microphone raising their arms in celebration

Frank DeSimone, who owns S.P. Entertainment LLC, plays an important role in keeping graduates' energy levels up while they check in and make their way from the track field to the stadium. DeSimone earned a master's degree in business administration from CSU Dominguez Hills and his son will begin attending Cal State Long Beach this fall.

Using the tennis stadium, which fits about 8,000 people, is a thoughtful choice. The team has explored using bigger venues, including the sports park's soccer field next door, but the tennis stadium provides an intimacy graduates appreciate. “They can see their families from wherever they are in the stadium and vice versa—we think that's important," Estela Melendez says.

stadium before

Volunteers keep an eye on the stands throughout ceremonies for guests attempting to pass forgotten items to graduates on the field including dozens of leis, mortarboards, honors sashes and more. “We tell our volunteers to always say yes, to just make it work," Melendez says. “Within reason, of course."

two graduates putting pins on one another

CSU Dominguez Hills has a tradition of holding an alumni pinning ceremony during each commencement ceremony to welcome graduating students into the alumni family and to remind them their relationship with the university doesn't end once they earn their degree. As they like to say: “Once a Toro; Always a Toro."

Male Success Alliance Student Success Coordinator Gerardo Cuevas (left) says he enjoys being a volunteer because it's another way to show up for his students. "Earning a bachelor's degree is a huge win," he says. "It's even more meaningful when you know there is a community of people to celebrate with."

a graduate and her family members 


months of planning
hours from setup to breakdown
beach ball confiscated

The CSU system honored more than 126,000 graduates across its 23 universities this spring, recognizing their academic achievements, extracurricular accomplishments, service work and perseverance. See highlights from the 2023 commencement season.

Special thanks to CSU Dominguez Hills Office of University Ceremonies and Events staff members Marilyn McPoland, Estela Melendez, Sara Napoli and Kim Larson (retired).