The art and science of reading names at graduation


Paul Atkinson

Peter Lafford stepped in for his wife at the last minute to read names at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Convocation 15 years ago and has been reading names at ASU graduation ceremonies ever since.

"My wife Barbara was scheduled to be one of the two readers at convocation, but had a family emergency a few days before," said Lafford, an academic professional with the University Techology Office.

"With my background in languages, I thought I could handle it," Lafford said. "It went well and my wife and I became a tag team."

Lafford, an academic computing professional at Arizona State University, has master's degrees in French and English as a Second Language. He's also fluent in Spanish and can converse in German. By teaching English as a second language, Lafford was exposed to complex student names from around the world.

Lafford reads student names at a half dozen graduation ceremonies. The largest was an audience of 60,000 at Sun Devil Stadium when President Barack Obama gave the commencement address in the spring of 2009. Lafford credits the software company MarchingOrder for making the process efficient enough that he can prepare for six different graduation ceremonies.

"The software makes it easy for the reader to request that students record their names," said Lafford,  "which makes the job manageable."

The effort he puts into reading student names was the subject of a story on NPR's "All Things Considered." Correspondent Ted Robbins profiled Lafford at the convocation with the most challenging names – Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

"It's nice to get some recognition for your work, but it's really a team effort," Lafford said. "There are four of us that usually do the bullk of the ceremonies and they all contribute to making the ceremonies sucessful and meaningful."

Joining Lafford on stage are Helene Ossipov and Andrew Ross from the School of International Letters and Cultures, and Jacquline Martinez and James Wermers from the School of Letters and Sciences, and Lafford's wife Barbara who is a member of both schools.

"We're both still doing it," says Barbara Lafford. "The students put a lot of hard work into their education, which will help them and their families.  The least we can do to honor that commitment is to pronounce their names correctly."