Staff Q&A: Alison McGhie

Alison McGhie

Coordinator, Special Projects, Office of the Secretary

Length of Service:
10 years

Among her leisure-time interests are inline skating—she patrols with Inline Town Watch—and costume design.

STAFF Q & A/Accomodating the honorary degree recipients is a breeze, says Alison McGhie.

After talking with Alison McGhie C’91,GEd’92, the woman who shepherds Penn’s honorary degree recipients through Commencement, we couldn’t help but think: Other event coordinators would probably kill for a job like this.

Tales of prima donnas with outlandish demands? She had none. Snafus that arose at the last minute? None of those either—at least not yet; she has only been handling logistics for the Commencement honorees for three years now.

In fact, the most excitement she gets from the job of arranging the honorees’ visits to Penn is from meeting them directly. McGhie comes to the job with several years’ worth of experience planning events for the Penn Museum, which made her a good fit for the position in the Office of the Secretary.

Q. What exactly do you do as event coordinator for Commencement?
My main responsibility is the honorary degree recipients—taking care of them, making travel plans and their schedule while they’re here, and also the Commencement program, which is handed out to all the guests.

Q. How easy or difficult is it to arrange the schedules of the honorary degree recipients?
It hasn’t been hard. This is my third Commencement, and almost all their assistants have been so nice and accommodating. I just call them and e-mail them back and forth. It’s a pretty confined space and time, so it’s not like I’m trying to plan for a week, which would get more confusing.

Q. Do you book their lodgings?
Yes. They stay at the Inn at Penn.

Q. . Do you accompany them to any events?
Yes. I accompany them to the honorary degree dinner on Sunday night [at Eisenlohr Hall], and then to breakfast and lunch Monday.

Q. What happens at the dinner?
It’s a time for everyone to meet. There’s a cocktail hour, and then there’s dinner. The honorary degree recipients are introduced and have a chance to say a few words, and there’s an opportunity for them to meet some Penn people.

Q. . Any particularly memorable moments?
Well, I did sit with the Qualcomm guy [Erwin Jacobs, CEO of Qualcomm, an honorary degree recipient in 2002], and he entertained us by showing his gadgets. He had a phone that took pictures and connected to the Internet and things like that. He had three different gadgets on him. He showed us what was up and coming, and now everyone has phones that have cameras and connect to the Internet.

Q. How’s it been dealing with Bono this year?
His people are very nice. They’re very cooperative. They understand what we want from him and they understand his time constraints.

Q. Are there any people you’ve dealt with who stand out in your mind?
Archbishop Tutu last year was an absolute sweetheart. He was just the nicest man I’ve ever met. And I accompanied him most places while he was on campus.

Q. Does anyone assist you or do you do this job by yourself?
I pretty much do this by myself, but I work very closely with the President’s Office events staff.

Q. Do you get to sit on the platform at Commencement?
I do. Last year was my first year.

Q. What were your impressions looking out at the audience?
It’s amazing how many people fit in those stands. It reminds me of when I was in the Penn Band, at halftime shows at football games, and seeing the stands full of people singing “The Red and the Blue” and doing those arm movements.

Q. Is Commencement the only event you plan for the Secretary’s Office, or are there others?
I’m also involved in Convocation, which is a much smaller event in the fall. It’s the opening ceremony for the school year, and it’s held out on College Green.

I also work with Overseers Affairs. They started a new program for arts and culture boards called Arts Day. We’ve had two of them, so I’ve been very involved in that. I also update the web site for the Trustees and the Office of the Secretary.

Q. What’s the most fun part of the job?
Meeting the honorees. It’s so exciting to be at Commencement with the graduates and march through campus.

Q. Any particularly difficult parts of the job?
Weather. It’s better if it’s a nice day.

Q. Since you like costume design, let me ask you: If you could, would you redesign the academic robes?
I would make the hoods of the robes a little easier to wear. They’re not very friendly. They can choke you. I’d have them somehow attached to the gown. The way they’re made is that you’re supposed to attach the hood to a button on your shirt, but most people don’t wear shirts [with buttons] under their formal regalia.

But it’s not up to me. We rent them from a company, so we’d have to get them to change it.

Originally published on May 13, 2004