Arizona State University’s commencement has turned into a nearly five-hour spectacle drawing President Barack Obama, 71,000 people, a rock legend and hundreds of public safety and Secret Service officials.
ASU will begin allowing people to enter Sun Devil Stadium’s north gates at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday with staggered entry times thereafter until the gates close at 7 p.m. The pre-ceremony show will kick off at 4:45 p.m. The early arrival times are aimed at reducing the size of the crowd waiting in line at any one time in weather expected to reach a 99-degree high.
Still, ASU officials are warning people to expect up to a 90-minute wait to clear security checkpoints, which will be managed by U.S. Secret Service agents. And some people could spend up to seven hours under the scorching sun in an open-air stadium, waiting for the ceremony to wrap up with fireworks shortly after 9 p.m.That’s not counting time spent in traffic getting to and from the stadium.
Despite the wait, heat and other logistical headaches, the majority of ASU’s graduating class of about 9,267 students chose to attend commencement.
The pre-ceremony show includes an appearance by rock star Alice Cooper, mariachis, a gospel choir and a marching band. But the big draw is Obama.
Sarah Larson, a 23-year-old education major, said she is not an Obama supporter. But it never occurred to the future history teacher to let politics stand in the way of attending the commencement.
“My political views don’t exactly line up anywhere near his,” she said. “(But) no matter what your politics are it’s going to be a very cool thing. When else can you say I saw the president of the United States give my commencement speech?”
Ismael Paderez, 35, of Phoenix, has to arrive at the stadium at 3:00 p.m. He requested the maximum six tickets ASU offered graduates. Nothing, he said, would have prevented his family from attending the ceremony to see him get his degree in electrical engineering.
“I’m the first person on my father’s side to graduate from college,” he said. “With this economy . . . and looking for a job . . . I want to hear the president give a message of inspiration.”
ASU President Michael Crow will help fulfill the college dreams of five students who will become the first recipients of ASU’s President Barack Obama Scholars program. Crow will present the Valley high school students with the award following Obama’s address. ASU named the award in honor of Obama instead of providing him an honorary degree.
The scholarship offers up to $17,000 annually to help students pay for tuition, books, room and board.
Virgil Renzulli, an ASU spokesman, said ASU hopes the scholarship will serve as a national model for universities aiming to make college more affordable. Families making less than $60,000 annually qualify.
“We know that for Arizona to be competitive and the U.S. to be competitive we have got to produce more college graduates,” he said. “We hope this (scholarship) will have a lasting effect.”
While the commencement is making history-it appears to be the largest U.S. graduation ever and the biggest audience Obama will have addressed since his inauguration-public safety officials are more concerned with making sure the large crowds do not create a health or security hazard.
Cmdr. James Hardina, of ASU Police, said authorities are most concerned with the heat.
“This is a big event. There will be long lines. We want people to start hydrating at least the day before (commencement),” he said.
To ease traffic, ASU is encouraging people to take the light rail and other public transportation to commencement. Veteran’s Way and other surrounding streets near the stadium will be closed Wednesday.
Hardina said ASU’s 74 police officers and an additional estimated 150 officers from 18 Valley public-safety agencies will monitor the lines and stadium area. The Secret Service, he said, will man security checkpoints and will be in charge of the president’s security plan.
A member of the White House communications staff said people should expect security similar to that at airports and carry as few items as possible. People will go through metal detectors and be checked to ensure that they are not carrying prohibited items. Those include purses or bags larger than 12 inches on any side, balloons, signs or posters, weapons, pointed or metal objects, air horns, Mace or pepper spray.
Melissa Werner, ASU’s director of university ceremonies, said planning for the 2009 commencement has been a major task, especially given that last year’s commencement was one of the largest to date with about 12,000 people in attendance.
Going to commencement
The ASU commencement Web site, graduation.asu.edu, is updated frequently. ASU recommends those who plan to attend to check regularly for changes to rules or the schedule.
Where: Sun Devil Stadium, 500 E. Veterans Way, Tempe.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Arrival: ASU has posted staggered arrival times for ticket holders on its graduation Web site. Because of traffic, closed roads, crowds and the security checkpoint, ASU is encouraging people to take public transportation to commencement. Those driving should allow extra time to park and walk to the stadium. Metro light rail is running all of its trains to help ease commencement traffic. But officials are still warning people to arrive at light-rail stations early as a wait to ride trains is expected. For more information on light rail, parking and other public- transportation options: valleymetro.org or uabf.asu.edu/ parking_commuter.
Street closures: Veteran’s Way will be closed from Mill Avenue to University Drive, beginning at noon Wednesday. The street will reopen at the end of the event. Surrounding streets will be closed for limited periods. The most current information about street closures can be found on ASU’s parking and transit Web site.
Not able to get a ticket? Live broadcast: ASU cable channel. A live webcast will be provided at graduation.asu.edu/live.
• Everyone age 3 and older must have a ticket to enter Sun Devil Stadium.
• Lost, stolen or damaged tickets cannot be replaced.
• Tickets are heat-sensitive. Do not leave them exposed to heat or sunlight.
• Sold tickets will be canceled.
• Graduates must have their caps and gowns when entering the stadium.
• Guests are not allowed on the field.
• People who engage in disruptive behavior may be removed from the stadium.
BEATING THE HEAT
• Bring sunscreen, hats, sunglasses and water bottles. Bottles must be discarded prior to entering the stadium.
• Concessions, free water and restrooms will be available inside and outside the stadium.
• There will be tents in several locations outside the stadium as well as “cool zones” outside and inside the stadium. Complimentary fans will be handed out.
• Ticket holders who are uncomfortable in the stadium can watch the ceremony on a large video screen in Wells Fargo Arena but are not allowed to re-enter the stadium once they have exited.
WHAT TO BRING
• Cameras, cellphones, MP3 players, binoculars and small tubes of sunscreen will be allowed through security.
• There is a list of prohibited items, including: tools, unopened packages, aerosols, fireworks or explosives, laser pointers, containers of any type, foods, alcohol, coolers or grocery bags, and poles or tripods.
• For a full list of prohibited items and other commencement regulations, refer to the ASU commencement Web site, graduation.asu.edu.
Appearance: 6 p.m., Runaway Phoenix featuring Dash Cooper with guest Alice Cooper.
Pre-ceremony show ends: 6:47 p.m.
ASU President Michael Crow’s greetings: 7:25 p.m.
President Barack Obama’s speech: 7:52 p.m.
Presentation of President Barack Obama Scholars, followed by distribution of diplomas: 8:08 p.m.
Fireworks: 9:11 p.m.
Fireworks end, field is cleared: 9:17 p.m.