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New College Alt Graduation: Traditional quirkiness, plus a Russian dissident

Written by on Saturday, May 18, 2024

Campus dissenters pack the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium.

By Florence Fahringer

Original Air Date: May 17, 2024

Host: New College is holding its official graduation ceremony just after this broadcast, but for many students, the main event has already happened. Alternative commencement, an alumni-sponsored alternative to graduation, was held yesterday, and reporter Florence Fahringer was there to report on the event. 

Florence Fahringer: What started as a last-minute event thrown together by students and alumni just last year is now taking the form of a nascent tradition. The first alternative commencement was held for the graduates of twenty twenty-three — the students who experienced the New College takeover in their very last semester of college. The graduating hosts of this year’s commencement, Gaby Batista and Chai Leffler, elaborated on the history. 

Chai Leffler and Gaby Batista

Gaby Batista: I think the way that today’s event and last year’s went, it’s a little different in the way of students being involved. Last year, things were very much on a shorter schedule. A lot of things had to just go, go, go, we need to get things going, and get things ordered, and find a venue, and pay for the venue. So this time around, you have a lot more time. We met weekly for months, and it was honestly the alumni that really put everything together, the founders paid for it using money raised from last year.

Chai Leffler: Last year was kind of more last-minute, they just scrambled. Now we made an event that was by the committee that actually got us here. It’s the exact same thing, we just made it bigger, and I think we succeeded.

FF: The first alternative commencement was meant to provide an option for graduating students who wanted to experience something in the strain of past commencements; a commencement which aligned with historical New College culture and values. This alternative commencement, which involved much of the same crowd, was meant to do just the same. 

GB: There’s not going to be a situation … it’s very much, ‘Come, have fun’. It’s also very exciting to be able to graduate on our own terms and have a keynote speaker that really reflects who we are as a graduating cohort, and it makes me a little worried about tomorrow, how things might go. But I’m just relishing in the fact that today is going to be a really great day. I’m gonna definitely consider this first and foremost my official graduation.

FF: This is in contrast to the official commencement, which both last year and this year were largely seen and anticipated as being in conflict with historical New College culture and values. 

GB: Last year [at the official commencement], the keynote speaker sort of went on about things that weren’t necessarily about the graduating class, and the audience sort of reflected that. There was a feeling … there was heckling, people turned around, didn’t pay attention. And so, not that I’m worried about that happening, but I just, I’m worried that it won’t have the same impact on tomorrow’s commencement.

CL: That commencement is simply for [Richard Corcoran], and simply for the administration. We have a way to matriculate out the students that don’t even want to be there.

FF: Last year, the Alt Graduation was held outdoors, at the Sarasota Art Museum. This year, it was held in the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium. Waning sunlight filled the chamber, dimming to a darkness by the end of the event. Projectors cast quirky computer-generated graphics left, right, and center, depicting wind-battered palm trees, waves crashing against an off-screen shore, palm fronds sporadically glitching above and back below the water’s surface, and the phrase “Congratulations Class of 2024!” flanked by null sets. 

The first featured speaker was outgoing student president Grace Keenan, a member of the graduating class. She tapped into a recurring theme throughout the event: keeping things lighthearted and celebrating the graduates, while acknowledging the not-so-lighthearted context underlying the event. After the outgoing student president came the three outgoing faculty members: Katherine Walstrom, David Brain (who was absent, Chai instead speaking on his legacy), and Maria Vesperi. After a number of speakers alluded to their strenuous efforts to avoid crying, Vesperi broke the dam with a tearful recollection of a story from childhood. She ended her speech with some audience participation. 

Maria Vesperi: [inaudible, crowd yelling the names of professors].

FF: Following Vesperi was the highly-anticipated keynote speaker, Masha Aleksandrovna Gessen. The renowned author, journalist, and LGBT-rights activist from Russia, who has written extensively on authoritarianism, is a critic of both Putin and Trump.

Masha Gessen: [inaudible]

Masha Gessen

FF: Then, the students walked. Many wore all sorts of outlandish costumes, continuing a venerated New College graduation tradition. Even Chai sported a gray-furred tail, sticking out between his coattails. One by one, professors announced the names of the graduating students. They walked across the stage, shaking hands with the professors as they went, while being handed little souvenir cards commemorating the event. A few embraced the professors.

Once all the graduates had walked the stage, Jono Miller — the former New College professor and president of the NCF Freedom organization — gave some closing remarks. Then, the event ended, and the afterparty began. Three bands were lined up to perform, one of them being Physical Plant, a band founded by New College alumni which took its name from a building on the residential side of campus. A few students gathered in front of the performers, but most gathered on the opposite side of the auditorium, connecting and reconnecting with colleagues, alumni, and professors, some for the last time. A number of students and professors alike expressed their plans to spend this Friday evening off-campus, in protest of, or out of a sheer inability to stomach, today’s official commencement. Move-out, rather suddenly, happens tomorrow. Though move-out used to mean a student’s last day living on campus, that move-out already happened for many upperclassmen last year. This year, they’ll be packing up hotel rooms. 

Gaby and Chai contrasted the impromptu nature of last year’s alternative commencement with this year’s months-long planning period. They touched on the prospect of future alternative commencements.

Physical Plant, performing during Alt Graduation at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium. Photo: Fahringer

CL: Last year was definitely a learning experience. For everyone involved in this year, I think, at least from what I’ve seen, I feel a lot more comfortable. and [inaudible] this is easily something that they absolutely can because the alumni are always free to be there, to be like, ‘We’ll make it happen, if you want to make it’.

GB: We got asked, ‘Do you want to do this again?’ And I said yes, we need it. I’d love to have that moment. Ultimately last year was like this perfect cherry on top of probably like the murkiest cake you’ve ever seen. It was a great cherry, you know, left a sweet taste in my mouth after this semester. Crazy things we never thought would happen. So we’ve been able to do it again, with the same sort of support system with the alumni and some new hands in there, too. [inaudible] Maybe this cohort that’s going into their fourth year feel the same way, and they want to get into those meetings and do that. So it’s all up to the students really, and the alumni simply follow suit.

FF: This is Florence Fahringer, reporting for WSLR News. 


WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.