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Impending VSU graduates react to incoming commencement speaker

Valdosta State University announced Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp as its spring 2019 commencement speaker on April 12 via Twitter. Suffice it to say, many of its soon-to-be graduates weren’t happy.

Taking to Twitter in response, graduates let their opinions—positive and negative—roll. Some of the replies to the Twitter announcement included:

“Valdosta needs to do better.”

“Great choice. VSU students are lucky.”

“No. Just no. I’m only graduating once don’t do this to me.”

Graduating senior Jamontray Mike, or @ohthatstray, stated his own laments at the announcement.

“I’m disappointed in @valdostastate for selecting @GovKemp to be our commencement speaker,” he wrote. “The controversy around his election which included oppressing and omitting thousands of black votes last election is just the start of the disrespect.”

VSU announced Governor Brian Kemp as the incumbent commencement speaker on Friday, April 12.

Mike called VSU out, writing that this announcement is a misrepresentation of the university’s mission of “Diversity, Inclusion and Equality.”

On the VSU Facts’ Organization and mission page, it displays the student mission front and center which proclaims: “To provide a diverse student population with an inspired education, a safe learning environment, a nurturing community, and a wealth of experience that assists students in molding their futures in a creative, conscious, and caring fashion while preparing them to be lifelong learners who will meet the needs of a changing global society.”

To further empower this mission, the page leaves a concluding statement declaring “Valdosta State University fulfills its mission by focusing on inclusion in all aspects of the educational experience.”

Senior Jatavius Williams said the announcement represents VSU and its community—albeit not positively. With alleged feelings of rejection towards minorities, Williams said the seemingly political move was “inconsiderate.”

“This is supposed to be a time to celebrate our accomplishments, and you’re bringing a negative figure—at least to [minorities]—to our commencement, our ceremony,” he said.

Williams remembered seeing similar tensions spike at the 2015 VSU Trump rally (where then presidential candidate Donald Trump bought out the VSU Complex and ended up ejecting almost two dozen black students) which stirred more conflict than the university was ready for.

Keeping that in mind, Williams asked, “Why would [VSU] want to bring politics to the school anyway?”

“[VSU] saw how many people lined up for that. [VSU] saw what kind of energy it brought out in people,” he said. “It’s like you’re showing the judgements [towards] minorities coming here to V-State—that you don’t care about them.”

These dissenting opinions hit VSU like a storm in the few days after the announcement, but not everyone saw eye to eye. Some students saw the decision as a minority issue, while others felt their voices were unheard.

Senior Jessica Willis saw it as unfair, saying VSU should’ve sent out a survey to its upcoming graduates.

“I mean, they send out something when we’re having a concert, but for our own graduation, they didn’t ask our opinion on anything,” she said. “I feel like someone who speaks at a graduation ceremony should represent the students as a whole, not just one political party.”

She believes the survey is what VSU should do from here out. After all, the university shouldn’t brand itself “VSYOU” if it’s not going to listen to its students.

But perhaps it is listening. VSU hasn’t had many notable—or rather memorable—speakers in the past few years. Take a hop, skip and a step on social media, and you’ll find those grateful to see the governor coming to campus.

Senior Vanessa Benitez represents that sentiment. Taking politics out of the equation, Benitez was unfazed by the announcement. Her reaction: “Oh, it’s the governor.”

“I kind of look at it in a sense like it’s cool that the governor is coming to Valdosta,” she said. “We’re such a smaller school compared to other schools that it’s cool he picked us.”

For Benitez, this will be a learning experience. Despite the audience’s beliefs, Benitez is sure Kemp isn’t coming to push his own agenda; rather, he’s coming to give a good send-off to VSU’s incumbent graduates.

“That’s what a commencement speaker is for,” she said. “He’s not there to win votes or do [something] political. This is your commencement speaker inspiring you to go into the world and do something [incredible].”

VSU’s 2019 undergraduate commencement will begin on VSU’s front lawn at 7 p.m. on May 11.

Story and photos by Bryce Ethridge, Content Editor.

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