For most college seniors, the final weeks leading up to their commencement are filled with light-hearted fun, sentimental good-byes and the rush to finalize plans for the next chapter of their lives. The graduating seniors of the University of Notre Dame have experienced these and so much more as their college careers have drawn to a close. As one senior explained, “Things definitely have been much more different that I would ever have expected it to be.”
On March 20, 2009, the University of Notre Dame announced that President Barack H. Obama would be the principle speaker at the school’s 164th commencement ceremony and would receive an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree on the occasion. In the ensuing weeks, the school’s campus has become an epicenter of political, religious, and social debate and uproar. Though commencement lies at the core of the current controversy, those whom the commencement should celebrate—the graduates—have been largely overlooked in midst of the present storm.
“Regardless of what the administration or anyone says, commencement ceased to be about the graduates the moment that [President Obama] was invited to speak,” said Emily Toates, a senior mechanical engineering major who does not support the University’s invitation to the President. “Whether he wants to be or not, and despite the fact that he is president, Mr. Obama is a controversial, divisive figure.”
For many, what makes President Obama a “controversial, divisive figure” are his views on life issues, namely abortion and embryonic stem cell research, and his legislative and political record of voting for pro-choice action items and voting against many pro-life ones. Such actions are seen as being in direct opposition to the Catholic Church’s fundamental moral principles regarding the dignity of all human life.
“It is ironic that we are giving him a law degree,” senior political science major, Jeff Tisak commented, “seeing that he has used the law in ways that run diametrically counter to the mission of Notre Dame as well as that of the Church.”
Other students are in favor of the university’s invitation. These individuals believe President Obama shares much in common with other issues encompassed within Catholic social teaching, such as immigration, poverty, and torture. In view of this, as well as the fact that Mr. Obama is the first African-American President of the United States, there are many graduates who are excited and looking forward to President Obama’s commencement appearance.
Meghan Walsh, a senior English major who supports the invitation, said, “I think that Barack Obama is a wonderful person and I am honored to have him at my graduation and for him to have a diploma from the same college as I do.”
As graduation day draws nearer, the tension and anticipation of commencement activities noticeably grows stronger. In a recent letter to seniors, university president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., told the graduates that Commencement Day was a day to honor their undergraduate work and that the day’s focus will be kept on them and their accomplishments. Though most seniors do not expect there to be any disruption during the commencement ceremony itself, many do wonder what will be going on outside of commencement. As one anonymous senior said, “I understand that abortion is a big issue, but I just don’t want my graduation ruined.”
“My graduation will be memorable for many unusual and extraordinary reasons. I am not sure what I think of that yet.”