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'On Our Terms': New College students hold alternative commencement ceremony

Flags are displayed during New College of Florida's student-organized alternative commencement on Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Sarasota.
Douglas R. Clifford/Times
Tampa Bay Times
Flags are displayed during New College of Florida's student-organized alternative commencement on Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Sarasota.

Sarasota Art Museum became a bastion of hope and celebration Thursday evening as New College of Florida graduates attended an Alternative Commencement they called "On Our Terms."

The student-organized ceremony was held in protest of the Trump administration's COVID advisor, Dr. Scott Atlas, who is the keynote speaker at the official graduation Friday.

Civil rights activist Maya Wiley was keynote for the alternative ceremony.

"You have had to be strong in the face of COVID. You have had to be strong at a time when you had to figure out how to learn under the most challenging and scary conditions," Wiley told graduates.

"And then on top of all of that, you have had to be strong in the face of a few who would tell you that you can't read what you want to read, that you can't speak what you want to speak, and that you should get in line with an ideology that is not yours. And (they) call that freedom?"

Wiley spoke to students about their achievements, but also touched on some of the most recent legislation signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, including the Parental Rights in Education bill.

“You're speaking up to the dozen states that are now copycatting the 'Don't Say Gay' law," Wiley added. "You are not just standing for yourselves, you're standing for all of us.”

James Cook, the parent of a transgender graduate, brought black fabric for students to create an armband to wear during Friday's official ceremony in protest of the new administration that’s attempting to change the school’s direction.

“My kid has survived a pandemic, a hurricane that flooded the campus, and now an administration with Gov. DeSantis, who wants to erase who they are," Cook said. "My child is transgender and non-binary, and they exist.”

For the procession, many of the graduates participated in the school's tradition of dressing in costumes rather than just cap and gown.

One student dressed as a mermaid, another fashioned their long hair in front of their face, offering only the name, “the girl from (the horror movie) ‘The Ring.'”

In the absence of music, attendees even began humming the iconic "Pomp and Circumstances" song by Edward Elgar that is commonly heard at graduation ceremonies.

Graduate June Snell was draped in a rainbow flag. She says the only reason she’s attending the official commencement is because her family is in town. But when she walks across the stage Friday towards school officials expecting a handshake, she has a special plan.

“I have a rainbow fan. So instead of shaking his hand, I'm just gonna be like "whoosh" and like flip my fan down. I thought it’d be funny and kind of sassy.”

Student Micah Kienzle said his graduation came sooner than he’d hoped. He said he would not be attending the Friday ceremony put on by New College "under any circumstances."

“I'm getting out of here early because I don't want to stick around and see the damage. So it's certainly bittersweet, but it's nice to see all my faculty here and have one last night of revelry.”

Helene Gold, a former associate dean who was fired May 1 due to "reorganization" in the school, also spoke at Thursday's ceremony.

"If (reorganization) had been true, they would have waited at least three weeks until the semester was over, when students had finished their work and faculty were off contract, but instead," Gold said, "they chose to disrupt, destabilize, and demoralize our community."

"It is clear to me now that I was fired for being a troublemaker for pushing back against and for disagreeing with the direct authority over me and the authority that has taken hold of our college. I wear my dissent and my resistance as a badge of honor. If they thought I would go quietly, they clearly didn't realize that they were dealing with the loudest librarian ever," she added.

After her speech, Gold held up a picture of a "sad bear." She asked the students why the bear was sad.

Students and her yelled in unison, "because she's been left out of the scholarly conversation."

Patricia Okker, the former New College President who was fired shortly after six conservative board of trustee members were appointed by DeSantis earlier this year, offered words of encouragement through a quote from poet Mary Oliver.

“She says 'joy is not made to be a crumb.' Think about that. Savor. It's not a crumb. It's the real deal. Congratulations. You are amazing. You have totally filled my heart with love and joy. Thank you.”

After Okker spoke, the audience started chanting, “we love Pat.”

Alumni Brian Cody of Novo Collegian Alliance spoke to graduates about the fundraiser that made the alternative ceremony possible and how they far exceeded their goal.

Next year, New College students will have $70,000 at their disposal.

"This fund will be student-controlled, administered with Student Government, and held by the NOVO Collegian Alliance to maintain a firewall from influence by the college," Cody said. "The student-controlled fund is a way for students to continue to guide the campus culture, fund educational activities they want, fund clubs they want, support student advocacy on campus."

"This can be used to fund Pride, it can do theater productions, protest activities, really great parties, a speaker series, whatever the students want," Cody added.

He said over 2,600 people from across the world made donations.

New College’s official graduation is Friday at the Ringling Mansion.
Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7.

Meghan Bowman