They thought it a fun and tasteful way to pay tribute to the four years of hard work that Senior had accomplished to get to Friday, and they weren’t the only people who planned ostentatious celebrations among the 10,000 college graduates in gowns and mortarboards last weekend. One graduate did a back flip on the stage. Another proposed to his girlfriend. Many others snapped stage selfies.
But Senior’s moment quickly soured.
Mid-pose, an “inappropriately aggressive” marshal at the ceremony grabbed her and pushed offstage as thousands watched and others recorded. Videos of her and other similarly treated black students spent the weekend ricocheting around Twitter.
Many saw more than an over-the-top marshal and a botched attempt to maintain decorum.
Just over 6 percent of the student population at the University of Florida identify as black or African American, according to Forbes. But 100 percent of the students being bodily removed in the worst videos were black, including Senior.
“I was getting ready to do the Usain Bolt pose,” she told The Washington Post. “I tried to do it really fast. I saw the guy coming toward me … and when he pushed me, I almost fell, and I caught myself. But he pushed me so far that I passed the lady’s hand that I was supposed to shake.”
It happened several times to several people on Friday. Nafeesah Attah, who planned to flash a Delta Sigma Theta sorority hand sign, was pushed so hard her cap fell off as she struggled to maintain balance. Oliver Telusma spent a few seconds in a sort of rotating bear-hug with the unidentified university official.
A short time later, University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs found himself apologizing, saying school officials were “inappropriately aggressive in rushing students off the stage.”
Attah and Senior said they received personal calls from Fuchs, who apologized and said the university was taking steps to make sure the actions didn’t happen again. The marshal responsible for the action is being investigated, he told them.
Fuchs didn’t return a message from The Post seeking comment, although he made a public apology at the next day’s commencement exercises.
It was unclear what, if any, disciplinary actions were being taken and what specific steps the university was taking to ensure it didn’t happen again. In his apology Fuchs did not say why the marshal had treated the students in that manner.
The students who got the worst of it had mixed emotions about the university president’s response. Senior said Fuchs was gracious when he called her. But his apology didn’t come after she was pushed, she noted, it came after the university was roasted on social media. And Fuchs was sitting on the stage when Senior and the others were hurried across it. He did nothing in the moment, she said.
Students who had been rushed off the stage insisted the damage was done. They had only one chance to walk across the stage as an undergraduate, and it will forever be a bad memory, they said.
Telusma told ABC News he felt bad for his family, whose “lasting memory, at least for undergrad, will be them watching their son having his back turned toward the audience and being handled like a savage animal.”
As UF’s very involved commencement website can attest to, institutions of higher learning have to stage-manage large, quasi-public events full of unpredictable people who don’t always follow the rules of decorum. Cellphones go off. So do clothes. Then there is this potty-mouthed graduation fight that happened to the soundtrack of “Pomp & Circumstance.”
There is only so much that administrators can do to control — or punish — misbehaving students who are about to walk out of a university for the last time.
Attah told The Post she understood the need for decorum. But she believes her actions were not undecorous or any more extreme than the actions of some white classmates who were not manhandled.
“A lot of people think that it’s very trivial,” Attah said. “It speaks to the bigger and larger issue of race relations in the United States at this time and making sure that black students feel comfortable at these universities. This is the time to highlight black excellence; instead we were treated like criminals at our very own commencement.”
For Senior, the effects of the marshal’s actions endured long after the graduate hung up her cap and gown. That night, she went out with friends to celebrate one of their last times together before moving onto the next chapter in their lives. But the night was muted, Senior said, because she spent a good chunk of it responding to people criticizing her on Twitter.
“I was not being disrespectful,” she said. “I have home training. My family was there watching. I didn’t push nobody. I didn’t yell at nobody. I was very collected. Now people are making it into this whole different argument. It is just the hidden racism.”
“At this point, you want to call me an animal and say we’re ruining a traditional ceremony,” she said of the critics, some of whom were especially harsh. “I just want to tell those people, ‘You guys are the animals. I’m pretty sure if this was a white [graduate that was manhandled], you would be like, oh no, fire [the marshal], shut down UF.’ ”