Evergreen faculty speaker: ‘No one should see this graduation as a return to normalcy’

There were plenty of signs that it was a Greener graduation Friday.

There was the high-spirited processional led by the Artesian Rumble Arkestra, with songs such as “When the Saint Go Marching In” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

There were attention-grabbing outfits and decorated mortar boards and a big crowd filled with beaming parents, spouses, kids, friends and other family members.

And then there were signs that it was definitely not a typical graduation ceremony for The Evergreen State College. Bag checks. Metal detectors. Security guards. Those were heightened measures prompted by concerns over keeping people safe during a spring that has been nothing close to normal.

Edward Kehoe, 23, said the college’s decision 10 days ago to move commencement from Red Square at the Olympia campus to Cheney Stadium in Tacoma had its pros and cons.

“I have several friends whose family couldn’t be here because they specifically changed the time, or they didn’t have enough tickets, which is a real shame,” said Kehoe, who graduated with a bachelor of arts degree with a focus on communications and political economy. “But anything to help keep students safe is as good, as well.”

About 1,000 students participated in the ceremony, and it cost about $100,000 to rent the stadium, officials say. A stage was set up in center field, and students sat on chairs in the dirt that lined the bottom half of what is usually the Tacoma Rainiers’ baseball diamond.

College president George Bridges bought each graduate an umbrella, just in case it rained, Evergreen spokeswoman Sandra Kaiser said.

“I will begin by saying this is not where I imagined holding our graduation this year, but I’m very glad we’re all here together,” Bridges said. “The last few weeks have tested us. The discussions and debates we’ve had were at times fierce and disturbing. But while the mission of our college is to teach and learn across differences, its higher calling is to make the world a better place.

“Serious debate and discourse on issues like racism, freedom of expression, and inequity are vitally important to our world,” he continued. “We cannot shy away from them, nor should we. They are issues we face and struggle with as a nation.”

Korrena Poe, 32, of Tacoma, said the ballpark felt like a secure venue, but she would have been OK with having the ceremony at the Olympia campus.

“I’ve always felt safe on campus,” said Poe, who graduated with a bachelor of arts with a focus in inequality and journalism.

She said she thinks the national media coverage of the college’s racial tension was “a little blown out of proportion and kind of out of context.”

“I think the outside (coverage) of what was happening on campus was not accurate,” Poe said. “... People were getting little bits of information and taking it to the next level.”

This year’s speakers were 1995 Evergreen graduate Jaime Méndez who is an anchor and reporter for Noticias Univision Seattle; faculty member Anne Fischel, who teaches nonfiction media production, media theory and community studies; and students Eder Humberto Nunez Diéguez, Kadazia Allen-Perry and Jesi Richardson-Chapin.

Several of the speakers talked about the recent protests, threats and student unrest at Evergreen that have pushed the school into a national spotlight, and put it at the center of debates over racism, academia and freedom of speech.

“No one should see this graduation as a return to normalcy to the way things were before,” Fischel said. “For one thing, the lives of some of our community members have been threatened, and they can’t be here today.”

Allen-Perry talked about her experience as a student of color, coming to Evergreen where she had her first black instructor, and befriending a diverse group of classmates.

She compared that to her experience at a different college, where she attended for a year. She said the pressure there was so high, she tried to take her own life.

“But here I am alive, alive and truly happy,” said Allen-Perry, who graduated with a bachelor of arts degree with a focus on visual arts and communications, exploring the elements of identity centered on the African American experience in filmmaking.

“Who would have thought this is where my life would have ended up, with me standing in front of y’all giving a speech surrounded by white folks with dreads, feeling so proud of all my friends and peers of color, who like me, made it against all the odds purposely stacked against us both outside of this school and within it? We did it, we made it, we’re still here. We’re still breathing. Ain’t that something?”

Some students declined to be interviewed by members of the media. Because of the venue change, college officials maintained that it was a private event, and restricted media access to students within the ballpark.

Evergreen graduate Jessica Forster, 26, declined to talk about recent events on campus, but noted that her experience at Evergreen has been “amazing.”

She graduated with a bachelor of arts in biological science.

“Evergreen is a really special school, and I hope the best for the school in the future,” she said.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton