FAIRFAX CITY — Gov. Glenn Youngkin couldn’t escape issues of student diversity and equity Thursday at George Mason University, the largest and most culturally diverse public higher education institution in Virginia.
A number of students stood in protest — including the student commencement speaker sitting two seats from the governor — as Youngkin celebrated the graduation of nearly 11,000 students at the university here, including more than 1,500 who represent the first generation of their families to receive a college or university degree.
Youngkin, who has come under fire for an adviser who told another higher education audience that diversity, equity and inclusion “is dead,” countered by celebrating the stories of three graduates, by name, who had overcome adversity to earn their degrees at Mason.
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“No matter your faith, no matter your nationality, no matter your race, your culture or creed, as you walk across the stage (to receive a diploma), you will have the opportunity to become a builder of Virginia, a builder of this nation, a builder of the world,” he told graduates who hailed from 111 countries and every state.
“I know you will choose to build because that is the nation’s way,” he said.
George Mason President Gregory Washington, the first Black person to lead the university and the first member of his family to earn a university degree, set the stage by remembering the example that Mason students set after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending a half-century of legal protection for abortion and leaving states to decide the issue for themselves.
Competing factions sought to condemn or support the ruling in a protest at Mason’s campus in Arlington County, where its Antonin Scalia Law school is based. But they ultimately negotiated terms for both sides to voice their opinions respectfully, Washington said.
“Neither side was silent nor silenced each other,” he said.
Washington also commended the class as the last to enter before the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed their studies. “The pandemic put so much stress on the fabric of our world that society seemed to be coming apart at the seams,” he said. “You didn’t fight each other. You fought the virus and, together, you won.”
The Mason graduation was the largest in Virginia’s history — with more than 10,000 students receiving degrees and 700 earning certificates — but some students objected to Youngkin’s appearance as commencement speaker. Some had warned the university that they planned to protest by walking out, holding signs or turning their backs on the governor as he spoke.
The most visible protest came from Galilea Sejas-Machado, an honors student in criminology and sociology who founded the Hispanic Latine Leadership Alliance and served as a student ambassador at the Center for Culture, Equity and Empowerment.
After delivering a student commencement speech that honored “Indigenous communities and sovereign tribes” and her own identity as “a strong, independent Latine woman,” Sejas-Machado shook the governor’s hand and then rose as he spoke with a sign that stated “We Will Not Debate Humanity!” and “Mason Demands Action.”
“I think that gave some currency to the people who feel this should not have happened,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at Mason, who estimated that a dozen students walked out during the speech.
Rozell said the protests grew from student concerns about what they termed Youngkin’s attacks on public education, especially programs to promote “diversity, equity and inclusion.” He cited a speech by Martin Brown, the governor’s chief diversity, opportunity and inclusion officer, who declared “DEI is dead” in an appearance at Virginia Military Institute last month.
The protest was “entirely appropriate,” the veteran political analyst said, but he commended Youngkin for how he handled the situation.
“It was a good speech because he honored GMU and he told stories about three students who graduated after overcoming adversity,” Rozell said. “It could have gone a very different way.”
Those students were: Daniel Lee, a student from South Korea whose mother traveled from their country to watch him receive a bachelor’s degree in computer science; Noel Quezada, a first-generation student who served in the U.S. Army Reserve while earning a bachelor’s degree in criminology, law and society with a double major in forensics and psychology; and Brandon Roy Roca, another first-generation student majoring in international politics whose parents both were diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic.
“The governor celebrated the largest graduating class in the history of George Mason University, their stories, and diversity of thought in the commonwealth,” said Macaulay Porter, Youngkin’s press secretary. “The governor will continue to deliver for Virginia, preserve and protect free speech, and praise the many accomplishments of GMU grads.”
Mason Rector Horace Blackman introduced Youngkin as the leader of the “most diverse leadership team in history” with Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, a Black woman from Jamaica, and Attorney General Jason Miyares, the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in Virginia.
Washington, the university president, said diversity is Mason’s greatest strength.
“That diversity in origin, identity, circumstances and thought is what we call, ‘all together different,’ “ he said.
Youngkin digital ad
In another development on Thursday, Youngkin, who has ruled out a presidential run “this year,” released a digital ad that appeared to again fan the flames. In the ad, gleaned from a speech that Youngkin gave May 1 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, he says: “President Ronald Reagan changed lives. Now it’s our turn, a time to choose life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness over oppression and dictatorial rule. The stakes are high and the consequences couldn’t be greater.”
It’s time to usher in a new era of American values. It’s our turn to choose life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. pic.twitter.com/IH8enVaL5B— Glenn Youngkin (@GlennYoungkin) May 18, 2023
Youngkin is among a number of prominent Republicans to speak at the Reagan library as part of the “A Time for Choosing” speaker series, named for an address that Reagan gave in 1964 during Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. Speakers in the series have included GOP presidential hopefuls such as former Vice President Mike Pence; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.; and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The Washington Post reported that the ad mistakenly presents footage of a European fighter aircraft rather than an American fighter.
Michael Martz (804) 649-6964
@mmartzrtd on Twitter