A decade-plus-long friendship turned business partnership allowed two FGCU alumnae to help create perhaps the most unique graduation experience in the university’s almost quarter-century history.
In a partnership with Gravina, Smith, Matte & Arnold Marketing and Public Relations firm (GSMA), FGCU’s first Grad Walk took place between April 30 and May 2 — an unorthodox commencement event mixing virtual and in-person segments.
At the forefront of developing the first Grad Walk were two FGCU alumnae: Angela Bell and Jennifer Hamilton, partners at GSMA and 2008 FGCU graduates.
“We were excited about the idea of doing this for our alma mater,” Hamilton said. “We understand what the significance of graduation means because we’ve been through that. It was gratifying for us to be a part of the university in that way, and to be a part of something so special.”
Bell and Hamilton made the most of their two-month timeframe with the help of many FGCU staff including Nicole Russ, director of events and special projects, Katie Wing, events coordinator, and Jeff Garner, assistant vice president of University Marketing & Communications.
“We moved forward quickly and didn’t have any significant issues along the way. We made good decisions, and I think because of those decisions people had a great experience along the way,” Garner said. “We had to think about the FGCU brand and how to make this experience cool, fun and appropriate under the circumstances.”
Innovative technology played a crucial role in creating Grad Walk’s personalized, interactive, and — according to feedback from most involved — entertaining experience. Graduates and their families could walk through the ceremony at stations such as a social media wall, which beamed Grad Walk social-media posts onto the Alico Arena screens in real time. As graduates walked across the stage, they were greeted by a life-sized President Mike Martin on an LED display wall delivering a personal message for each graduate as they passed a motion sensor.
These elements formed an experience that Bell and Hamilton described as having the details of a Disney ride mixed with the efficiency of a Chick-fil-A drive-through.
“When each group entered the arena, everything was timed around that graduate and their family,” Bell said. “Nobody walked across the stage until their cameras were ready, until the graduate was ready; everything was timed so that they could enjoy and savor that personal experience. Those are the kind of things you don’t get from a traditional commencement.”
Hamilton and Bell’s intertwined journey began on FGCU’s campus as both pursued bachelor’s degrees in communication. Bell started working with GSMA in 2008, while Hamilton began with the firm while still a student from 2007 until 2009, then returned in 2016. The pair never envisioned themselves handling an event of the likes of Grad Walk.
However, both believed their experiences at FGCU prepared them for this moment. Bell, a 35-year-old Fort Myers native, and Hamilton, a 34-year-old Englewood native, attribute their success in this venture to their unique business relationship and partnerships with others.
“This showed us that no matter the obstacle, by putting together our heads, we can make it happen,” Bell said. “Another part of it is the unique relationship that Jennifer and I have. We’ve known each other for a long time. We were friends in college, long before we were business partners. We share the same beliefs and are in very similar phases of life, and I think that connection allows us to read each other very well.”
“We worked brilliantly as partners, in every sense of the word, in tackling this event and everything that came along with it,” Hamilton said. “Because of that long-term friendship and business partnership that we have, it was a lot of fun. It was a unique and memorable experience to go through with her.”
The university’s first in-person graduation celebration since the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated virtual commencements in 2020, the event garnered an outpouring of praise from graduates and their guests for its detailed setup and intimate experience. Many stopped to thank the event staff for creating a thoughtful, special moment for their graduates and guests.
Rachel Adkins, a spring graduate in journalism, was among the many who commended the group’s efforts.
“I enjoyed Grad Walk. It was great to be able to have some sort of graduation,” Adkins said. “It was also nice because it wasn’t as long as a normal ceremony. I appreciated the effort FGCU put in to help make the graduates feel special, too.”
Bell believes hearing that feedback is the greatest compliment an event coordinator can ask for.
Based on the data collected from the event, Garner believes Grad Walk’s template can be applied to future commencements. About 70% of the spring class of 2021 participated in the event.
“We had a ton of feedback where people said it was so well run, the experience was so good, that all graduations should be done like this,” Garner said. “It was a great experience to go through and see how much the students and families enjoyed it.”
‑- Tyler Watkins is a senior journalism major at FGCU and Tampa resident. He writes for FGCU360.com as part of a student newswriting internship program coordinated by University Marketing & Communications. FGCU students interested in future internship semesters should write Keith Gibson at [email protected] and put “Internship” in the subject line.