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Notre Dame
courtesy of We Stand for ND

Why the hell was Mike Pence at my graduation? I walked out

Students at the University of Notre Dame engaged in a silent but powerful protest against the vice president and all that he stands for

In a quiet but amazingly powerful protest, students graduating from the University of Notre Dame walked out of their ceremony, when the invited commencement speaker Mike Pence, began his speech.

The prominently Catholic university traditionally invites the president to speak at the ceremonies, but thousands of students and faculty members signed a petition earlier in the year to stop this, citing the Trump administration’s crusade against the vulnerable.

“They went with the next worst thing!” Aniela Tyksinski, one of the graduating seniors who participated in the protest, told Dazed. “We thought it was implied that we wouldn’t have Pence as a speaker because he’s a part of the administration, but they picked him anyway.”

Tyksinski is one of the students, as part of the We StaND for coalition, who silently walked out on May 21. They began pushing their message out to the media in a “long planning process” over the course of several months. Tyksinski was also involved in producing a video that explains students' perspectives of why they would want to walk out – their experiences on campus, how they relate to policies endorsed by Pence and his rhetoric.

“I think people don't realise how much goes into just one moment of walking out,” Tyksinski says. As videos of the ceremony show, it took the scores of graduands minutes to file out of the arena in a quiet but powerful act of protest.

Many of the students involved in the protest stood against Pence for different reasons: his political career as a governor saw him support anti-choice legislation, assert that women should be forced to bury foetuses, and supported gay conversion therapy. His role in the Trump administration continues to hurt some of the most vulnerable.

“As a group we stand for things like racial equality and healthcare access for everyone,” says Tyksinski. “We stand for refugees and for immigrants, for victims of sexual assault. There are just a number of issues we stand against Pence on. For me, personally, I think some of the things that stood out were the fact that I have a lot of loved ones who are undocumented – I had family members in the stands in the stadium. I was walking out for them, for their right to be at the graduation of their child and their loved ones without needing to feel fearful, uncomfortable or marginalised; at a graduation that they worked so hard to be able to provide their child with.”

“I had family members in the stands in the stadium. I was walking out for them, for their right to be at the graduation of their child and their loved ones without needing to feel fearful” – Aniela Tyksinski

The reaction in the auditorium was mixed. “We did get a lot of booing. We were silent as we walked out. After people stopped clapping for Pence, some started booing and saying things like, ‘you'll never get a job’, but we also had a lot of support. It was intimidating to be booed at but once we got out of the stadium, we did feel a lot of love and support from the community.”

Some family members and staff at the school chose to walk out with the protesters, meeting outside to do their own mini ceremony. “We were missing parts of our own graduation like the Tassel Turn and the Alma Mater,” she explains. “One of our lead organisers Bryan Ricketts announced outside ‘you have recommended yourselves to graduate, so I recommend that you turn your tassel’. We all turned our tassels on our volition, without needing the president of the university to do it. Then we sang the Alma Mater and just hugged everyone and shared in the moment with our families and the other people who were out there supporting us.”

Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, recently addressed Bethune-Cookman university – a historically black college – in Florida. As the Washington Post reports, any receiving their degrees chose to turn their backs, and booing was loud. The school president responded to protests by saying “if this behaviour continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.”

Tyksinski calls the reception that they’ve received since the graduation walkout “overwhelming”, but worth it.

“We’re students of Notre Dame and that’s such a privileged status to have, it gets so much attention. People are really watching what we're doing and looking to us. It's so important to use that privilege to make a big statement and reach so many people. It's amazing for only 150 to walk out and for it to make such a big impact.”

Since the weekend’s events, members of the group have been receiving personal Facebook messages and emails of support. Many, according to Tyksinski, have spoken about the big impact on how they felt about Christianity. Pence consistently uses his own religion as a basis and reasoning for some of his harsh and dangerous policies.  Some of the students at Notre Dame, a Catholic university, wanted to put across that their values were not being upheld despite what the current administration says.

Tyksinski says: “We just thought Pence and this administration overall don’t conform to how we see our university and our university’s values, which are often based in things like Catholic social teaching. This is really about taking care of the marginalised and looking out for the most vulnerable in our communities.

“We see Pence and Trump as further marginalising the most vulnerable in so many ways. Refugees are an obvious example but then you have people of colour, victims of violence, people who are living poverty and who don't have access to certain kinds of resources and care. That's why we thought this choice of speaker was a contradiction of our university’s values and Catholic values.”