I really don’t remember who spoke at my college graduations. I do recall that I didn’t hear anything that leaped out at me. Nothing was said that moved my emotional radar. No one shared profound truths or mind-blowing intuitions. We applauded as was expected, not because of the message we had heard but because of the mounting anticipation of finally receiving our diplomas.
Things are quite different these days as a legion of speakers have been trained, groomed, financed and dispatched to college campuses across the country with the blessing of a national conservative group, the Young America’s Foundation, whose mission is to “restore sanity at your schools.” They even provide literature, steadfastly asserting that their goal is to “increase appreciation and support of conservative ideas, not to stir up leftists or Muslims.”
But graduates at several colleges, including HBCU Bethune-Cookman University and Notre Dame have recently expressed their displeasure over the selection of the speakers chosen for their commencement services as well as the policies and philosophies those speakers represent. A few weeks ago, students at Bethune-Cookman booed and turned their backs while Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos searched for common ground, falsely intimating that HBCUs serve as examples of school choice when in fact they were formed because of segregation and inequitable access to education. Even with the university’s president threatening to prematurely end the ceremonies and mail diplomas to the graduates, the students refused to temper their disdain.
Vice President Pence has also faced the wrath of protesting graduates at Notre Dame when he returned to Indiana, the state in which he once served as governor, to deliver the commencement address at the home of the Irish. A small contingency of graduates, protesting Pence’s opposition to gay rights, his efforts to prevent Syrian refugees from resettling in Indiana during his governorship, his opposition to sanctuary cities who refuse to enforce federal immigration laws and his support of Trump’s immigration ban, rose as he began his address and quietly exited Notre Dame Stadium.
Sometimes, older adults tend to lament over the fashions, foibles, habits and beliefs that we see expressed by many of today’s youth. But maybe we’re dismissing them too readily, criticizing millennials before making a since effort to really understanding them. After all, during my formative years, young adults were burning bras, flags and draft cards, wearing dashikis, bell-bottoms and hot pants, sporting Afros and cornrows and pledging their allegiance to groups of protest including SNCC and the Black Panthers. We had our own methods that we employed to be radical — doing things our way and seeing the world through very different lenses, frequently pushing our parents to the brink.
College provides the kind of environment where many young adults finally “find” themselves. During their matriculation, they unearth pathways to undiscovered passions, confront strange, new, provocative ideas and philosophies and meet youth from very different backgrounds, religions and native lands. They grow up. They form their own minds. And so, looking at America’s protesting graduates gives me hope for the future. I’m encouraged by their fervor, their spirit and their determination to speak up and speak out. Maybe, when it’s time for them to take their place as leaders of the world, they’ll be poised to make this an even better place. I think they can do it. I believe they will.