GV faces backlash for graduation celebrations, officials respond


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Elizabeth Schanz, News Editor

National news outlets including Fox News and the New York Post accused Grand Valley State University of “segregating graduation ceremonies by race.” These claims were sparked by conservative political commentator Matt Walsh. 

Host of “The Matt Walsh Podcast” and columnist for The Daily Wire, Walsh said in a tweet that GVSU was “holding five segregated graduation celebrations, singling out Asian, black, LGBT, Hispanic and Native American graduates. There will be no special celebrations for straight white people, of course.”

GVSU officials said the ceremonies are a supplemental way to celebrate graduation outside of the commencement for the entire school. The university and students feel the claims and attention from national outlets undermine the purpose of the graduation celebrations. 

GVSU senior Ethan Carino is heavily involved in various cultural clubs on campus, such as the Asian Student Union, Filipino Club, the Filipino American Student Association and the Vietnamese Cultural Association. Carino is planning to go to the Asian graduation ceremony run by the Asian Student Achievement Program. He said the event is a great opportunity for students to come together to celebrate graduates and their future goals. 

“It’s a way we can come together, celebrate our culture, celebrate our achievements,” Carino said. “The intent of this is to give these small groups a way to shine, to feel connected and just to celebrate things on their own time.” 

Carino said celebrations like these are important to make students feel welcome and connected to other people who share a similar background at a predominantly white university. He said these events do not take away from commencement, but help to celebrate individual experiences. 

Christopher Knape, director of communication for GVSU, said the spread of misinformation took the ceremonies out of context and created many false ideas about what graduation celebrations are. He said the celebrations are open to all people and supporters of the recognized groups are not segregated, as Walsh and the news outlets claimed. 

Knape said the individual graduation celebrations are not new or unique to GVSU, an example being the Lavender Ceremony honoring LGBTQ students, which was first held in 2007. He said these ceremonies are not a replacement for the wider commencement, but rather a supplement to highlight student experiences at GVSU and beyond. 

Knape said no matter what celebrations people attend, the ceremonies all reflect GVSU’s goal of creating a place where all people feel welcome. He said these events reflect the university’s values and goals of creating lifelong connections with people within the community. 

“A part of having an empowered educational experience is finding people that you enjoy being with, who have shared interests, who have shared cultures, sometimes it’s shared hobbies, sometimes it’s a shared interest in the military or shared backgrounds that they come from,” Knape said. 

Additionally, Knape said there aren’t just celebrations held for queer people and different ethnic groups. There are numerous events for different identities and experiences, including celebrations for foster children and student veterans. 

“There are numerous other celebrations made for the Honors College and other departments and non-identity groups, but nobody seemed to have a problem with that,” said GVSU student Damian Martinez. “It only became a problem when queer people and people of color were given space to exist freely.”

At work in the Mary Idema Pew Library, Martinez answered a call from a person upset about the ceremonies due to the coverage. Martinez said many of the polarized and angry responses to the misinformation demonstrate the need for a well-rounded education that emphasizes critical thinking.

“It seems likely that he (Walsh) purposefully used a logical fallacy about segregation to stir up emotions and, sadly, a number of people chose to listen without question,” Martinez said. “Doing any further research into the topic would lead one to find these claims were untrue.” 

Knape said instances of misinformation and misinterpretation can lead to heightened emotions that come from a lack of understanding of what’s actually happening beyond what people have read in a headline or from one particular source. He said addressing peoples’ concerns allows for constructive conversations and clarity, even when it’s challenging.  

“In some cases it was difficult and some peoples’ minds were not ready to process what they might have read on an outlet that they trusted wasn’t true,” Knape said.  

Many of the different graduation ceremonies will take place around the time of GVSU’s commencement which will be held at the end of April.