Graduating for a Cause: This Year’s Commencement as a Call to Action

Recent Saint Anselm Graduate Wesley Vanderburgh reflects on the need to redefine community and civic engagement.

Those who attended this year’s Commencement exercises may have noticed some of the graduands wearing the above sticker, either on their caps or on their arm. This was part of a coordinated initiative that some members of the class of 2019 chose to engage in.

The image shows a power fist, a traditional symbol of movements of liberation for communities of color, in front of the pride flag, which has become a symbol for LGBTQIAP+ communities and movements.

We chose both images to reflect our experiences of discrimination during our years on the Hilltop. Many of us have been made to feel unwelcome or inferior just because of who we are, whether at the hands of various individuals or institutional patterns of commission and omission. While we recognize that such treatment was often—though certainly not always—inflicted without the intent to do so, we have felt the hurt all the same.

Those of us who engaged in this protest action believe that such marginalization has no place in the institution that we have called ‘home’ for the past four years. Therefore, at the end of 4 years of trying to make a difference, we took this one final step to highlight the urgent change that is needed across the board, from athletics to the monastery and everyone in between.

Yet there is also another issue at stake than what I just described. As far as we know, no class has ever organized a protest action during their own Commencement, which frustrates us. There is a general lack of political engagement at Saint Anselm College, and we took this last opportunity we had on the Hilltop to break with this phenomenon.

What I’m talking about is best visualized by the following two paradoxes. Saint Anselm College is nationally recognized for its high levels of student involvement in volunteer and outreach work, both in Manchester and beyond. Yet, there is a lack of corresponding culture of issue-based advocacy, which would look like students mobilizing to end the very issues that compel their volunteer work in the first place.

For example, how many of us have volunteered at soup kitchens without mobilizing for policies to end unemployment, poverty, or hunger? Volunteering without advocacy is unfortunately never going to solve these issues.

Second, Saint Anselm College boasts of the internationally-renowned NH Institute of Politics, which attracts politically-minded individuals from all over the world to enroll as a student or speak as an honored guest. Yet, students cannot seem to conceive of what ‘politics’ would mean beyond mere partisanship; many of our students who consider themselves ‘politically active’ only go as far as volunteering for campaigns or interning at various public institutions.  

Of course, we need Hawks to continue volunteering in their communities and getting involved in electoral politics, because our school equips us with the knowledge and resources to make a difference. Yet we also need to broaden our conceptions of ‘service’ and ‘politics’ to include occupying the public space and fighting for a better world.

How could we do this? Organized, issue-driven student campaigns, coordinated civil actions, public gatherings and demonstrations, and ‘get out the vote’ campaigns are all ways students can get involved. By engaging in these types of actions, we become part of a tradition of direct, participatory democracy that is fundamental to our country’s heritage and ongoing vitality. We can take the first step confidently, knowing that we are surrounded by those who have walked this path before us.

Therefore, those who participated in this action hope that we can serve as a source of inspiration for those who remain on the Hilltop. We are also confident that our small act will not go unnoticed.

Education, service, and advocacy are all linked—we can’t create change without all three. In many ways, our unique Anselmian experience points us toward a convergence of all three. Our drive to serve is cultivated. Our access to information is provided. Now, all we need are outlets to make our voices heard.

Thus, with this final action, we are calling on those who remain to continue the work we tried but failed to accomplish. This campus is already renowned for its food, its Benedictine hospitality, and its ethos of volunteering; it’s time to make it renowned for its student activism.

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