The 2017-18 Cal Poly academic year was, at times, tumultuous — marked by protest and activism. The weekend's opening commencement ceremony, one of three to bring that year to an end, was no different.
Several speakers at the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences and College of Sciences and Mathematics graduation ceremony Saturday morning, including Associated Students Inc. President Riley Nilsen, remarked on the power of activism.
"Your voice matters," she told the graduating students. "Y'all are bad asses."
Several students and faculty in the Alex G. Spanos Stadium crowd wore a red "IX" taped to their gown or mortarboard to protest the university's Title IX sexual assault investigation process. Other students previously expressed plans to refuse to shake President Jeffrey Armstrong's hand during the reading of the names, though it's unclear whether any did so.
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That activism was given a voice in Cal Poly's choice of keynote speaker: Baltimore city school teacher, LGBTQ activist, two-time "The Ellen Show" guest and Class of 2013 alum Wyatt Oroke.
He used the occasion to remind the students of their incredible privilege.
Oroke said he asked his middle-school students what he should say in his speech before traveling to San Luis Obispo. He said one girl told him to ask the graduates, "how does it feel" to be among the comparatively few in America who will ever get the opportunity to go to college.
"My question is simple: What will you do with that power?" Oroke asked the hundreds of students in attendance in the morning ceremony.
He told them he hoped they would work to dismantle the infrastructure of oppression and bigotry, and to "go out and fill the world with love." He also spoke in the College of Liberal Arts and Orfalea College of Business ceremony later Saturday.
Oroke's words came as Cal Poly has fallen under increasing scrutiny for its handling of Title IX sexual assault investigations, its disproportionately white student body and a campus atmosphere that included multiple incidents of students wearing blackface or racially insensitive costumes as well as the dissemination of racist graffiti and fliers this year.
Armstrong acknowledged that the university has further to go to achieve both gender equity and racial diversity in the student body in his own remarks to the students. However, Armstrong said Cal Poly has made great strides on both fronts; he said as he looked out at the crowd, "there are white faces, black faces, brown faces" looking back.
In a year also dominated by the question of state funding, Armstrong used the occasion Saturday to encourage the more than 4,800 graduating students to go out, get good jobs and pay their taxes, to call on Gov. Jerry Brown to fully fund the California State University System, and to give generously themselves so the next generation of students can benefit.
"Pay it forward," he said.
The weekend's graduation events drew an estimated 40,000 visitors to SLO, resulting in heavy traffic in the university area. The ceremony also had heavy police security; at one point, officers removed an unauthorized student who had seized control of the microphone.