From a freshman’s first days on campus through to graduation day, many students can feel their college experience fly by in an instant. Yet, preparing for the culmination of what has often amounted to four years (or sometimes longer) of college life is no small feat in itself. Plans for the Graduating Class of 2014 have been in full swing on campuses around the country, and since early March, Grad Fairs have been providing students with a wealth of resources ranging from career counseling to financial advice. In many of them, the Barnes & Noble College bookstore has become the focal point of preparedness for students anxious to make sure they’re ready for one of the biggest days of their lives. Despite a reputation for being a class of students quick to distinguish themselves from earlier generations, when it comes to graduation, it seems that the traditions of pomp and ceremony are still much sought after.
While preparation is important, graduation should also be a time of excitement, a point not lost to Jesse Nelson, Manager of the San Jose State University (SJSU) Spartan Bookstore in San Jose, California. “In previous years, our store was about helping students complete their graduation check list — helping students to order their gowns or class rings,” he says, “but this year, we really wanted to make it a celebration of graduation — we really wanted to make it more of an event.”
In the bookstore, that sense of celebration has been put front and center. “This year we’ve moved our graduation display to the front of the store,” explains Assistant Manager, Lisa Towns. “Every day of our Grad Fest we either gave away tassel key rings or entered customers into a raffle to win a set of regalia,” she adds. Both Nelson and Towns also acknowledge the support of an important partner in the graduation process which helped ensure their event’s success. “This year, we consolidated all of our grad products through Herff Jones, which enabled us to present really exciting regalia packages and bundle together some great value for our students,” Nelson explains.
Herff Jones provides a full range of caps, gowns, diploma frames, graduation announcements and graduation rings for many college bookstores, but the relationship is deeper than that. “We work with the bookstore manager on scheduling events,” explains Ken Langlois, Vice President of Sales for the College Division of Herff Jones, Inc. “We can help develop marketing pieces to email to students or place on the university websites, or create individual marketing pieces to reach parents for example,” he adds. Once the event starts, Herff Jones staffers work with bookstore management to help service the college’s graduating student body.
At SJSU’s Spartan Bookstore, that effort certainly paid off. The event was the most successful ever, with the store selling more grad rings in one day than at all of last year’s events put together. But in addition to the boost in sales, Nelson has another way of measuring its success. “We had a lot of participation by the students and created a lot of affinity with the event,” he says, pointing out that creating school spirit in an urban campus as large as SJSU isn’t always easy to achieve.
It was also a successful grad event at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. “We had one hundred grads come through the store each day,” explains Liberty University Bookstore Manager Kathy Scarborough, whose event also helped boost the number of students who will walk at the college’s graduation this year. Scarborough and Nelson both cite the importance of their bookstores’ relationships with the campus administration, saying that partnering with the President’s and Registrar’s Offices, Graduation Committee and Alumni Associations have helped spread the word and develop a greater awareness for their graduation events.
“Communication is the important part,” agrees Laurie Woo, Manager of the Ole Miss Bookstore at the University of Mississippi in University, Mississippi. “Our goal was really to make the preparations for graduation simple, comfortable and fun as seniors don’t always know what to expect,” she says. Spread over the different Ole Miss colleges and campuses, awareness for the grad fairs was spread by in-store pop-up displays, and email and social media postings.
Even though it’s the culmination of their university life, not every grad is prepared for graduation. Herff Jones’ Langlois notes that students aren’t necessarily familiar with the tradition of commencement or what a Master’s gown looks like as opposed to a Doctorate gown. “Grad fairs really allow us to answer those kinds of questions one-on-one,” he says. And at campuses around the country, bookstores are ready to help students who want that element of tradition as they complete their college education. At Ole Miss, Woo accommodated the last few stragglers to ensure they had everything they need for graduation. At SJSU, Nelson and Towns will be moving their location while the existing store is being renovated – an added challenge with the extra traffic from graduation. And at Liberty University, where the bookstore shares a parking lot with the stadium — and where this year’s class will graduate — it’s also likely to be a very busy time. Or as manager Scarborough likes to think of it, graduation with “40,000 of my closest friends.”