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New College students hold an alternative commencement 'on our terms'

Audience members clap while some people hold up flags.
Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times
Pool Photo
Flags are displayed during New College of Florida's student-organized alternative commencement on Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Sarasota.

Graduates of New College of Florida held an alternative commencement at the Sarasota Art Museum on Thursday. Hundreds of family and friends joined them in celebrating.

Sarasota Art Museum became a bastion of hope and celebration Thursday evening as New College of Florida graduates attended an Alternative Commencement they called "On Our Terms."

The student-organized ceremony was held in protest of the Trump administration's COVID advisor, Dr. Scott Atlas, who is the keynote speaker at the official graduation Friday.

Civil rights activist Maya Wiley was keynote for the alternative ceremony.

"You have had to be strong in the face of COVID. You have had to be strong at a time when you had to figure out how to learn under the most challenging and scary conditions," Wiley told graduates.

"And then on top of all of that, you have had to be strong in the face of a few who would tell you that you can't read what you want to read, that you can't speak what you want to speak, and that you should get in line with an ideology that is not yours. And (they) call that freedom?"

crowd applauding with one woman wearing a pride flag
Douglas R. Clifford
Tampa Bay Times/Pool Photo
New College of Florida graduating students attend the college’s “alternative commencement” on Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Sarasota.

Wiley spoke to students about their achievements, but also touched on some of the most recent legislation signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, including the Parental Rights in Education bill.

“You're speaking up to the dozen states that are now copycatting the 'Don't Say Gay' law," Wiley added. "You are not just standing for yourselves, you're standing for all of us.”

James Cook, the parent of a transgender graduate, brought black fabric for students to create an armband to wear during Friday's official ceremony in protest of the new administration that’s attempting to change the school’s direction.

“My kid has survived a pandemic, a hurricane that flooded the campus, and now an administration with Gov. DeSantis, who wants to erase who they are," Cook said. "My child is transgender and non-binary, and they exist.”

For the procession, many of the graduates participated in the school's tradition of dressing in costumes rather than just cap and gown.

Woman holding a bouquet
Douglas R. Clifford
Tampa Bay Times/Pool Photo
Soledad Gonzalez arrives holding flowers for a friend for an “alternative commencement” Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Sarasota. Hundreds of students, family members and friends gathered at a Sarasota art gallery Thursday evening for an “alternative commencement” that gave New College of Florida graduates a chance to celebrate their accomplishments and defy the state officials who have altered the character of their school.

One student dressed as a mermaid, another fashioned their long hair in front of their face, offering only the name, “the girl from (the horror movie) ‘The Ring.'”

In the absence of music, attendees even began humming the iconic "Pomp and Circumstances" song by Edward Elgar that is commonly heard at graduation ceremonies.

Graduate June Snell was draped in a rainbow flag. She says the only reason she’s attending the official commencement is because her family is in town. But when she walks across the stage Friday towards school officials expecting a handshake, she has a special plan.

“I have a rainbow fan. So instead of shaking his hand, I'm just gonna be like "whoosh" and like flip my fan down. I thought it’d be funny and kind of sassy.”

Student Micah Kienzle said his graduation came sooner than he’d hoped. He said he would not be attending the Friday ceremony put on by New College "under any circumstances."

“I'm getting out of here early because I don't want to stick around and see the damage. So it's certainly bittersweet, but it's nice to see all my faculty here and have one last night of revelry.”

Woman speaks in front of a podium, smiling and holding a picture of an animal
Douglas R. Clifford
Tampa Bay Times/Pool Photo
Helene Gold, a former librarian at New College of Florida, was fired recently, just weeks before the end of the semester, speaks during the college’s “alternative commencement” on Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Sarasota.

Helene Gold, a former associate dean who was fired May 1 due to "reorganization" in the school, also spoke at Thursday's ceremony.

"If (reorganization) had been true, they would have waited at least three weeks until the semester was over, when students had finished their work and faculty were off contract, but instead," Gold said, "they chose to disrupt, destabilize, and demoralize our community."

"It is clear to me now that I was fired for being a troublemaker for pushing back against and for disagreeing with the direct authority over me and the authority that has taken hold of our college. I wear my dissent and my resistance as a badge of honor. If they thought I would go quietly, they clearly didn't realize that they were dealing with the loudest librarian ever," she added.

After her speech, Gold held up a picture of a "sad bear." She asked the students why the bear was sad.

Four women sitting side-by-side during the graduation
Douglas R. Clifford
Tampa Bay Times/Pool Photo
New College of Florida graduating seniors attend the college's "alternative commencement" on Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Sarasota.

Students and her yelled in unison, "because she's been left out of the scholarly conversation."

Patricia Okker, the former New College President who was fired shortly after six conservative board of trustee members were appointed by DeSantis earlier this year, offered words of encouragement through a quote from poet Mary Oliver.

“She says 'joy is not made to be a crumb.' Think about that. Savor. It's not a crumb. It's the real deal. Congratulations. You are amazing. You have totally filled my heart with love and joy. Thank you.”

After Okker spoke, the audience started chanting, “we love Pat.”

Alumni Brian Cody of Novo Collegian Alliance spoke to graduates about the fundraiser that made the alternative ceremony possible and how they far exceeded their goal.

Next year, New College students will have $70,000 at their disposal.

"This fund will be student-controlled, administered with Student Government, and held by the NOVO Collegian Alliance to maintain a firewall from influence by the college," Cody said. "The student-controlled fund is a way for students to continue to guide the campus culture, fund educational activities they want, fund clubs they want, support student advocacy on campus."

"This can be used to fund Pride, it can do theater productions, protest activities, really great parties, a speaker series, whatever the students want," Cody added.

He said over 2,600 people from across the world made donations.

New College’s official graduation is Friday at the Ringling Mansion.

Two people hugging
Douglas R. Clifford
Tampa Bay Times
New College of Florida graduating students Nicole Silvera, left, and Barbara Monteiro share a hug moments after being announced during the college’s “alternative commencement” on Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Sarasota.

Meghan Bowman is the WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for spring of 2023.