On the evening of May 18, over 400 members of the New College community—encompassing students, staff, faculty, alumni and parents—gathered at the Sarasota Art Museum to celebrate the graduation of the cohort of 2019. It was a ceremony held on their own terms, aptly titled [NEW] Commencement. In the words of co-organizer KC Casey (‘23), the student and alum-run celebration sought to make graduates “feel more accepted in a time… when students feel alienated and often attacked by our current administration.”
[NEW] Commencement’s lineup of speakers included graduating students, alumni and former faculty members, all of whom had the opportunity to speak candidly before their friends and family. The ceremony’s keynote speaker was President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Maya Wiley.
Prior to the ceremony, guests trickled into the Sarasota Art Museum’s courtyard, mingling among iconic New College professors and alums while sipping drinks and nibbling on hors d’oeuvres scattered throughout the venue. After attendees enjoyed one another’s company and snapped photos for about an hour, the commencement began. The event opened with an introductory speech from Casey, who was also serving as the ceremony’s host. In true New College fashion, Casey was sporting a unique graduation outfit, one familiar to most in the audience.
“I’m personally reprising my role as Rocky from Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Casey shared, referencing the New College tradition of the yearly student-led revival on campus. His next comment brought a good laugh from the crowd. “I have worn a shirt this time because I know we’ve got some grandparents here.”
Casey drew parallels between the Rocky Horror production and [NEW] Commencement.
“I organized that show also as a student-led event on campus in January,” Casey said. “I felt a similar way to how I feel now. I’m kind of in awe of the freedom and strength that can be found in community and self-expression.”
Casey went on to applaud everyone in attendance, especially the fellow members of their graduating cohort. Additionally, they acknowledged New College’s political circumstances that led to their perceived need for the organization of this alternative celebration.
“I’d like to quote the great theater theorist Bertolt Brecht,” Casey said. “‘When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.’ I use that as a guiding principle here. As we celebrate our graduates tonight, I want you all to recognize that joy is an act of resistance. It’s hard to feel joy sometimes, to put it simply, but especially when facing injustice on a daily basis. But with an event like this, it’s just a bit easier to remember that we deserve to feel joy and love and we deserve to feel celebrated.
“Looking at the fascists taking over our school, we live in joy. They live in fear,” Casey declared. “They live in fear of time passing them by as they long for the past. They want us to live in fear too, but in resistance we live in joy and love, knowing that their hateful, regressive ideas will soon fade away along with them.”
With these opening remarks, Casey introduced the first student speaker of the evening, former New College Student Alliance (NCSA) President Sofia Lombardi (‘23). Her speech focused on the positivity and love she felt from the members of her cohort.
“I don’t want to spend this speech speaking too much on New College’s current events because I want today and tomorrow to truly be a celebration for us graduates,” Lombardi opened. “When awful things like this happen, the first thing I do is exert too much energy trying to explain it and justify it to myself. What I’ve learned through that is that we, as a community, will never really understand why these people are trying to ban our identities and limit our freedoms because we, as a community, are not capable of the cruelty they are inflicting, thanks to the love we share with each other.”
Lombardi identified the various hurdles graduates had to clear in order to get to the finish line.
“We, as the cohort of 2019, have had the run of it,” Lombardi continued. “We have survived a merger bill, hurricanes, this fascist takeover. Throughout that, we’ve somehow accomplished so much. We’ve managed a thesis along the way, and we just have so much to be proud of.”
Lombardi concluded her speech this way: “I would like to congratulate you guys by sharing my favorite New College quote. That the natural state of the human spirit is ecstatic wonder and that we should not settle for less.”
Following Lombardi’s speech, outgoing Catalyst Editor in Chief and elected Student Commencement Speaker Sophia Brown (‘23) went to the podium.
“This new administration is in no position to authentically celebrate our community,” Brown said. “The guest speaker they have invited signals their disdain for what makes New College such a brilliantly unique institution, and their sickeningly transparent political motivations.
“They are not interested in celebrating the same students they have ruthlessly attacked and mocked for months,” Brown continued. “They have not contributed in any positive way to my education or my New College experience and we’ve all seen that the hostility they’ve brought to our campus has inspired fear and restraint in our community. Fear of losing your job or not being granted tenure. Fear of being arrested for protesting these attacks against our school.”
Brown went on to share an abridged version of the first draft of an opinion piece about New College that she wrote for CNN.
“If there is any kind of special insight I am positioned to give, it’s this,” Brown read. “Listen to the students while they’re still here. Prioritize student voices, student journalists, activists, organizers and student government members and trustee representatives, because we are the ones living it.
“Don’t look away,” Brown continued. “This doesn’t go away for us once we get out of class, once we get back to our dorms, once the semester ends. Keep listening even when it makes you uncomfortable. I wrote all of that during the first week of March. Now it is today, and this doesn’t go away for us just because we’re graduating.”
Brown closed her speech with praise for her fellow graduates and words of encouragement.
“These are some of the bravest people I’ll ever have the fortune of meeting, and they will continue to preserve what has made New College so special in their individual ways,” Brown stated. “I think we’ll all be taking a piece of New College with us as we leave, preserving the memory of what we know to be the true heart of this institution. Regardless of what it becomes, none of us will be alone as we branch out into the wide world. All of us will have each other and all of us will have the version of New College that we have created.”
Brown received a standing ovation following her speech. Shortly after, an alum organizer of [NEW] Commencement and former NCSA President Brian Cody (‘06) took the podium, gave an emotional speech and made a noteworthy announcement.
“I want to share a preview of what being an alum’s going to be like,” Cody began. “Imagine it’s 10, 20, 30 years down the road and you see someone walking down the sidewalk. And they have a New College hat or shirt or Four Winds tattoo. You’re going to want to talk to them because it’ll feel like coming home. For one instance, you’ll be back in College Hall, or Pei, or Dort and Goldstein. And you’ll be happy to be around people who speak that secret language.
“A tiny liberal arts college is like a small town,” Cody continued. “You actually do know everyone and they know you. And that’s a very rare experience in the modern world and in higher education.”
After painting an inspiring picture of post-graduation life as a member of the New College community, Cody announced the creation of a student activity and advocacy fund.
“This fund will be student-controlled, administered with student government and held by the Novo Collegian Alliance (NCA) to maintain a firewall from being influenced by the college,” Cody declared. “The fund is a way for students to continue to guide the campus culture and fund educational activities. This can be used to fund Pride, theater productions, protest activities, whatever students want. Seventy thousand dollars is going to be made available to students next year, and that’s from the fundraising for this event.”
After Cody’s enthusiastically received speech, former Associate Dean of the Jane Bancroft Cook Library Helene Gold took the microphone to publicly address Novocollegians for the first time since she was abruptly dismissed.
“On Monday, May 1, at noon, without any prior communication or warning, I was fired and told to pack up my office and leave the library,” Gold stated. “The only explanation I was given was that my position had been eliminated due to reorganization. If that had been true, they would’ve waited at least three weeks until the semester was over, when students had finished their work and faculty were off contract. But instead they chose to disrupt, destabilize, demoralize our community and shame on them.
“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,” Gold continued. “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.”
Gold proceeded to encourage graduates and continuing students to use their power to sustain resistance to the intentions of the new administration.
“Proudly wear your troublemaker badge of dissent like I do, skillfully navigating the information landscape to identify and call out disinformation,” Gold said. “Harness the power through what you read, what you consume, and what you share. New College has prepared you for this. You are well prepared to stand up to those who seek to silence you.”
After Gold’s standing ovation came the keynote speaker. Maya Wiley stepped to the microphone and offered an outsider’s perspective on the actions of the new administration.
“While I could say that I am standing here as a civil rights lawyer, while I could say that I’m standing here because I lead the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights coalition, while I could say that I am here because I, too, know what it means to be a faculty member,” Wiley opened, “I’m here because I’m also a mom. I am a mom who has two amazing offspring, both of whom are in colleges that respect their right to be who they are. And I stand here feeling the pride that I know your parents are feeling right now, because I feel it too. I know the pride your professors feel, because I feel it too. And because I know the pride of your peers, because I feel it too, I want you to know that it is not lost on any of us, no matter where we live in this country.”
In her speech, Wiley drew parallels between the changes made to New College since January and George Orwell’s famous novel 1984.
“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13. And the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared the state has the unfettered authority to muzzle its professors. In the name of freedom, this is positively dystopian,’” Wiley said. “This is positively dystopian, and these words come from a federal judge who had to hear the case against stopping woke.”
Wiley condemned the insults and ridicule that members of the new administration have subjected students to throughout the semester and praised the exceptional alumni that New College has produced over the years.
“I want to remind you of the ranks that you join tonight,” Wiley continued. “It is a joyous rank, a beautiful one. It is one that represents all that is good in this country.”
Wiley named notable graduates such as gun control activist X González (‘22), Alameda County Superior Court Judge Victoria Kolakowski (‘82) and history doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago Derek Black (‘10). She then finished by sharing some parting words from Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
“He talked about traveling through the history of the world, seeing it, witnessing it, understanding it,” Wiley explained. “And then he said, ‘but if I had the ability, I would beg the Lord to let me be in the second half of the twentieth century.’ He said, ‘I know that sounds strange because these are dark times.’ They were scary times. They were a time when he did not know that the next day he would be shot dead for demanding equality, demanding an end to the war in Vietnam, demanding that garbage sanitation workers got a fair wage. But what he said stands true today. He said, ‘It’s only in the darkness that we can see the stars,’ and when I stand here, all I see are stars. So, thank you for lighting up our future.”
Wiley’s words were again met with a standing ovation. Then co-organizer of [NEW] Commencement Madi Markham (‘23) read aloud a copy of the 1988 mission of the New College Alumni Association (NCAA).
“Once admitted, a New College student is always a New College student,” Markham shared. “No person or group has the right to abridge, confiscate or deny any New College student the responsibility for their own education. Responsibility in this context is a personal accountability, an ability to act without reference to a superior authority, a responsibility which can only be fulfilled in an environment of full academic freedom. Such an environment was established and is protected by New College faculty and their commitment to give students access to themselves.”
After Markham’s time at the podium, the procession of graduates began. Led by Assistant Professor of Theater and Performance Studies (TDPS) Diego Villada and Professor of English and TDPS Nova Myhill, all of the attending graduates walked across the stage to the sounds of applause and cheers from loved ones.
Following the procession, former New College President Patricia Okker was given the floor to address the community in person for the first time since her firing at the end of January. As she took the stage, the audience stood, clapped and cheered. Once she stepped behind the podium, Okker acknowledged that she “had written remarks” but chose to go off-book.
“Life is full of before and after moments; the vast majority of them we recognize only in retrospect,” Okker said. “The phone call that changes your life, the bad pickup line from somebody who ends up to be your husband for 31 years. So savor this, savor the transformation that you are undergoing right now. The transformation that you did tonight to turn this into such a celebration of joy. You are living proof that transformation is not just possible, it’s inevitable. And if I needed a message, it’s that.”
Okker chose to end her comments with a quote from poet Mary Oliver: “Joy is not meant to be a crumb.”
Applause broke out at the end of Okker’s words and chants of “We love Pat” echoed throughout the audience as she walked off stage. This signaled the end of the community speaker segment of [NEW] Commencement, only to usher in the reception, complete with live music. The musicians were all students and alumni, including solo performer ASH (‘23), student/alumni band Sungrazer and alumni band Physical Plant. The remainder of the night saw members of the New College community embrace one another to bask in the moment of joy that this group desperately needed. After a half-year of uncertainty and turmoil, Novocollegians could savor a moment and enjoy one another’s company. Finally.