By Radhika Viswanathan
Published: May 30th, 2017
By Tuesday afternoon, the photos had been taken, the confetti had been thrown and the students of Brooklyn College’s Class of 2017 could finally call themselves alumni.
Clad in Brooklyn College’s maroon cap and gown, over 4,000 graduating students were joined by their family members and faculty, filling Barclays Center to almost full capacity. With Senator Bernie Sanders as keynote speaker, the commencement ceremony was imbued with a political spirit that strongly embodied the essence of the graduating class.
“You will push forward, and you will make our democracy better, because now is the time to defend democracy and to defend our values as a country,” said Letitia James, the New York City public advocate who spoke right before Sanders. Her fiery speech—which included quotes by Drake and the Notorious B.I.G.—touched upon controversial topics such as abortion rights, racism and immigration.
By far, the most anticipated part of the event was Sanders’ speech. He began by speaking about his Brooklyn roots and his year at Brooklyn College, which “had a major impact on [his] life.”
Sanders, who was awarded an honorary degree during the ceremony, gave a politically charged speech that was reminiscent of many of his campaign rallies. With his classic, impassioned manner and without mentioning President Donald Trump by name, he enjoined students to fight the “oligarchic community” that currently prevails. “We must never allow demagogues to divide us up by race, by religion, by national origin, by gender or sexual orientation,” he said.
“Unbelievably, at exactly the same time as they are throwing people off of healthcare, making it harder for kids to go to college, they have the chutzpah,” he said, pausing as students chuckled at his characteristic word choice, “to provide 300 billion dollars in tax breaks to the top one percent.”
The audience responded with resounding “boos,” and Sanders nodded sympathetically.
Only towards the end of his speech did his words sound like a commencement speech rather than a campaign speech: “Today, as you graduate from Brooklyn College, my message to you is very simple: Think big, not small, and help us create the nation we all know we can become.”
“I felt like it was tailored to the class of 2017. We’re in a very political world right now, and these are the things that needed to be said,” said Akilah Etienne, who graduated with a Music B.A. and sang the national anthem at the beginning of the ceremony.
Regarding her performance, Etienne said, “This is what I want to do with my life. To have this opportunity in front of all of my peers, it was a very emotional experience.”
But not all students felt that the event’s highly liberal bent was warranted. “It was made into a completely political affair, with only one side represented and the other was condemned, essentially. The only mention of right-leaning people in the crowd was to tell us to check our privilege,” said Kayla Elberg, who graduated with a Masters in industrial organizational psychology. “We’re there to celebrate our graduation, not to have a political agenda pushed on us.”
The other speakers included valedictorian Kevin LaMonte Jones and salutatorian Michael Franco. “There has been no greater honor for me in my life than the one bestowed upon me today,” Franco said after the ceremony had ended. “I come from a very close-knit community. Coming to Brooklyn College, I was able to meet such incredible people with so many cool backgrounds. To be able to act as a voice for such a diverse and intellectual student body is tremendously humbling on many levels.”
After graduation, Franco, a Psychology B.A., will be attending the SUNY Downstate College of Medicine. He also plans to pursue rabbinical ordination. “Hopefully, I can do what is right and proper in the eyes of God,” he said.
“I cried,” said Tyson Robert, who graduated with a major in Business Management and Finance. “As an immigrant from Haiti, I never thought I would make it. But at Brooklyn College, I got to experience being in another nation and met so many diverse people. I loved BC.”
Largely because of Sanders’ popularity, the event was booked to the point where students were denied requests for extra tickets.
“It’s the largest graduation we’ve ever had in this building,” said Gerald Patterson, the assistant manager of facility services at the Barclays Center. “And we’ve done dozens of graduation from the time the building was built.”
“Other people may be here because of Bernie Sanders, but I’m excited because my wife is also graduating,” he said with a proud grin.
President Michelle Anderson received the President’s Investiture during the ceremony, an honor that formally conferred upon her the responsibility of the president’s office. Other honorees included Fredy A. Peccerelli (’96), who received the Distinguished Alumnus Award, and members of the class of 1967, who had reunited 50 years after their graduation.
“I’ve never felt this much pride in my school; I’m proud to say I’m from Brooklyn,” said Ashley Dominic, who graduated from Brooklyn College last year. “This was by far the best graduation that I’ve been to.”
“They always talk about immigration and diversity at Brooklyn College,” Dominic continued. “But this year more than ever, people started to realize their power and privilege—or lack thereof. This year, everything became a little bit more relevant.”
“Overall, I can conclude that my graduation was shit,” she laughed.
Along with politics, the speakers touched upon that spirit to which only Brooklynites can attest. As Borough President Eric Adams said during the event, “There are two types of Americans: those who live in Brooklyn and those who wish they could.”
And in typical Brooklyn fashion, the students made their way out with family members, not in a limo or cab, but by swiping their metro cards, filling the Atlantic Terminal subway stop with a wave of maroon.