Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that President Barack Obama is speaking at spring commencement. And you’ve probably also heard that everyone in Ann Arbor and everyone graduating is pretty thrilled about it. But this isn’t entirely true. There are more than a few people on campus who are less happy about it. I’m one of them, and I’ve been doing a lot of explaining about why I am so upset.
I only get to graduate from college once in my life. My family was going to come all the way from Oregon, and we were all looking forward to it, and now I’m not going to graduation.
Here’s why: University President Mary Sure Coleman announced the speaker with this statement: “President Obama has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of many students with his inspiring words of hope and change. We are honored to welcome a leader of his distinction and look forward to his message. We could not be happier for the graduates who will celebrate their academic achievements with the president of the United States” (President Obama to deliver spring commencement address, 02/11/2010).
What about the students who haven’t had their imaginations and enthusiasms captured by “hope and change”? There are some students here who aren’t Obama fans. Maybe we’re not so happy to celebrate with him.
And I’m not convinced that it’s graduates’ achievements that we’ll be celebrating. I have a feeling that the whole weekend is going to be everyone celebrating Obama instead. He’s got rock star status in this town. Friends who weren’t planning on coming to commencement called me asking for tickets when they found out about him. The University is planning ways to deal with increased demands for tickets. People won’t come to see us — students who have worked for four or more years to get a degree — they will come to hear Obama. This weekend was supposed to be our graduation, not his event.
And for those of us who aren’t Obama fans, it’s going to feel a lot like the night of Nov. 4, 2008, when all of Ann Arbor danced in the streets, but I went to bed at 10:30 p.m. and worried about what this meant for me and my country. I wished I was almost anywhere except Ann Arbor. Everyone here is supposed to be open-minded and accepting, but it felt like I had a target painted on my back when I pinned a McCain-Palin button to my bookbag during the campaign. My friends tried to talk me out of voting Republican and treated me like an idiot when I refused. I was made to feel afraid and ashamed to express a legitimate viewpoint. This discrimination is as unacceptable as anything inflicted on any other minority community, but because we’re Republicans, people in Ann Arbor somehow think that it’s okay.
Half of the country didn’t vote for Obama. Recent approval ratings show that over half the country doesn’t think he’s so fabulous now. And the fact that this never gets addressed — because Democrats are overwhelmingly the majority in Ann Arbor — bothers me. Don’t get me wrong: I think it speaks volumes for the University’s prestige that the current president is our commencement speaker. But Obama is one of the most polarizing figures in a country that’s weathering one of the most tense political climates in years, and it’s that polarization that makes me question if he’s a good choice.
I went to commencement when former President Bill Clinton spoke in 2007. I’d go if he were speaking this year, even though I dislike him. But he’s not the current president. He’s not the focal point for so much emotion on both sides of the political aisle. He doesn’t have control over issues that so many people feel so strongly about. He doesn’t represent a party and an agenda that many people oppose. Obama is all of these things, and his presence will turn the graduation ceremony into a political event. Everyone in Ann Arbor — business owners, politicians, students — now has something they want him to focus on in his speech like jobs, manufacturing or Michigan’s economy. These are all important things that the president needs to talk about. But our commencement ceremony is not the place to do it.
I wanted to go to my college graduation and pose in my cap and gown with my friends. I wanted to walk into the Big House for the last time as a student and out for the first time as a graduate. Now I won’t, because I wanted a graduation, not a political event.
I’m deeply disappointed in the University for perpetuating the myth that everyone is inspired by Obama and that everyone will be happy that he’s speaking. I wish someone had considered that maybe some people don’t want graduation day to be about Michigan’s economic woes or the president or the state of American politics. These are all things that everyone, party affiliation aside, is concerned about. But this one day out of the year, our college graduation, is supposed to be about us.
Madeline O’Campo is an LSA senior.