College graduation season is in full swing, with celebrities and politicians delivering impassioned, heartening and funny commencement speeches to the Class of 2017. This year’s exercises cap off a year marked by political tensions on and off campuses across the country. And President Trump and criticisms of his administration’s policies were a key feature of many addresses.
At Howard University’s commencement Saturday, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) criticized the administration’s stance on immigration, health care and law enforcement. The former attorney general of California blasted the administration’s controversial decision to direct prosecutors to pursue mandatory minimum prison sentences that has resulted in longer incarcerations of African American and Latino men.
“At a time when there are Americans — disproportionately black and brown men — trapped in a broken system of mass incarceration … speak truth — and serve,” Harris, a Howard alum, told graduates. “At a time when men, women and children have been detained at airports in our country simply because of the God they worship … speak truth — and serve. At a time when immigrants have been taken from their families in front of schools and outside courthouses … speak truth — and serve.”
Maz Jobrani, an Iranian American comic and actor, used humor to discuss Trump’s immigration policies Saturday at his alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley. Iran is one of the six majority-Muslim nations named in Trump’s temporary travel ban, which, at least for now, is halted in the federal courts.
“Listen, even if you voted for Trump, we still love you. We do. Listen. I know immigrants that voted for Trump. Yes. I have immigrant friends who voted for Trump because they wanted fewer taxes. They ended up with fewer relatives. But still. Things happen.”
“Speaking of Trump, if you’re thinking of committing a federal crime, this weekend would be a good time to do it because he just fired the head of the FBI. Jim Comey. Yeah. Easy comey, easy gomey.”
Although she took a few jabs at the Trump administrations, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) primarily used her address at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on Friday as a call to civic action.
“The decisions that get made by your government are important and far-reaching, and it is no longer possible to assume that democracy will work if most Americans simply wait until election time to learn a little about the candidates and otherwise ignore what’s going on,” she said.
“Our country, our democracy, is not a machine that will run on its own. It needs you out there fighting for what you believe in. And here’s why: if elected officials don’t hear from people like you, then the policies will be set from the people they do hear from — and believe me, they hear plenty from corporate CEOs, from Wall Street, from giant corporations, and from others who spend buckets of money to make sure that their interests are heard.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on Saturday encouraged graduates of Virginia Commonwealth University to keep an open mind and listen to others, something that many constituents think lawmakers in Washington have a difficult time doing. The Democratic nominee for vice president in 2016 recounted a story from a legislative aide who said constituents who called often started out angry, but turned polite after she listened to them.
“People are expecting that you won’t really listen to them. They’ve had that experience in the past and they think they’re going to have it again. And when you do, even if you can’t, you know, solve their problem immediately, they actually become surprised and grateful. Of course, this is a lesson about politics, but not just about politics.
“People don’t feel like Washington or their state Capitol or their city hall really understand what they’re going through. So those of us who work in politics, we have to acknowledge that and we have to look for intentional ways to interact with people and do a better job of showing them that we’re listening to them. And within politics as we work with each other, legislators or others, we’ve got to do a better job of listening to each other.”
Politics was not top of mind for everyone this year. Comedian Will Ferrell delighted the audience at the University of Southern California’s 134th commencement Friday with a rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” Ferrell, a 1990 graduate of the university, was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters.
“The next time I’m flying and they ask if there’s a doctor on board, I can now confidently leap to my feet and scream, ‘I’m a doctor, what can I do? Yes, no problem, I can absolutely deliver that baby.’ Hopefully it will be on United Airlines, in which I will immediately be subdued and dragged off the aircraft ….
“To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”
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