MSU grads honor Nassar victims at commencement
East Lansing — During a subdued commencement ceremony Friday afternoon that was marked by protest, many Michigan State University graduates relished their accomplishments while showing support for the victims of Larry Nassar.
More than 5,600 undergraduates are set to graduate this weekend, but well fewer than 1,000 attended the general commencement ceremony at Breslin Center, leaving many of the bleachers reserved for them empty.
Teal stickers and ribbons were speckled among the green caps and gowns, emblazoned with "#ReclaimMSU," the name of an organization that continues to push for change at the university in the wake of the Nassar scandal rocking campus.
Students wearing the stickers said they wanted to make sure victims of sexual assault were not forgotten.
Alexandra Lazarow, a James Madison College graduate from Clinton Township, had a teal ribbon pinned to her gown. She said her experience at MSU has been changed by the scandal.
"I definitely made some lifelong friends, and at the beginning felt like I was part of a community, but I think it's been tainted by the whole Larry Nassar scandal and just with the whole issue going on with the Board of Trustees," she said. "I don’t think MSU is really handling themselves in the way they could be."
Lazarow said she wants to see a "clear-cut policy regarding sexual assault and conduct of that nature." She wants more accountability for students athletes and transparency from the administration. And she'd like the Board of Trustees to resign.
As Brian Breslin, chairman of the MSU Board of Trustees, began to address the students midway through the program, three people unfurled a small banner to the right of the stage. With block text in stark black-and-white, it read "no corruption, abuse, business as usual."
The protesters were part of a different organization calling itself Pissed Off MSU. Their banner remained up for several minutes until the protesters were escorted away. There is a no-signs policy for most events, according to a Breslin Center employee.
Other students were determined to savor the moment and reflect on how they've grown at the university.
"I feel like I've learned so much and really found myself and what's really most important to me and what my goals are," said Emma Heckelsmiller, a biosystems engineering graduate. "It's just a new outlook on life that I'm really excited to move forward with and see what's out there."
Heckelsmiller is from Chicago and has taken a job in Grand Rapids, which she'll begin in August.
She, along with the rest of the graduating class, have reason to be optimistic. Unemployment is at 3.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — the lowest level since 2000. It's also the signal of a more competitive job market, but graduates didn't seem dissuaded by that prospect. Many had jobs lined up or plans for graduate school.
Zach Grober, a criminal justice major from St. Joseph, said the recent turmoil at MSU had contributed to his decision to pursue a graduate degree in student affairs. He wanted to work to ensure students are better protected in the future.
"Especially graduating MSU with everything going on, I wanted to find ways I can make a difference and kind of help colleges navigate to more positive outcomes, especially surrounding (the federal law) Title IX," he said.
Grober said as he was being interviewed for graduate school, he was asked: "Oh, you go to Larry Nassar's university?"
"You find your mindset changes, and you realize maybe I need to be the 'Spartans Will' from now on," Grober said. "That's a big thing that most graduates will be like. They're going to prove that we're not what you're seeing on the news, that we're above this and we're bigger than this. All of us love MSU."
Friday’s commencement speaker, Wanda Herndon, was a two-time alumna who guided the coffee chain Starbucks as a senior vice president. Now the CEO of her own firm, W Communications, she addressed the student body frankly and with levity about her journey at MSU.
She admitted that like many other students, she partied her fair share at the university.
"I enjoyed my undergraduate years a little too much," she said. "Yes, I was irresponsible, but I had an enviable social life."
Herndon said she turned her life around academically: "I found the strength to fight for the life I wanted to live."
Entering the corporate world in the late-1970s as a black woman, she said she lost count of the times she was a "first" something.
"I waged a never-ending, silent rebellion against the establishment,” she said. “Each time I changed my hair color and showed up in the office with various hairstyles.”
Her speech was never overtly political, but she urged graduates to practice civic virtues that resonate in the current age, noting, "we are living in a challenging period of history."
In an interview with The Detroit News after her speech, Herndon addressed the recent incident where two black men were arrested for sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks after employees called the police.
"I think Starbucks has recognized the problem, taken some immediate steps to correct the situation, and I know they are still working to make sure this never happens again," she said.
"Yes, it shouldn't have ever happened, but yes, they've admitted it was a mistake, and they're taking action to make sure it doesn't happen again, and I'm proud of the way they're handling things."