It turns out the Pledge of Allegiance is important.

That’s one of the lessons Grand Valley State University’s Student Senate President Eric-John Szczepaniak learned in a recent kerfuffle between senate members over whether to include the pledge in their weekly meeting agendas. 

Another is that when constituents talk, it’s smart to listen. 

Since the beginning of the year, the pledge has been voted off of GVSU’s Student Senate agendas twice with the intention of creating a more inclusive atmosphere for international students and non-Christians. But neither removal stuck.

Amidst student backlash, donor displeasure and prospective parents second guessing whether to send their children to the school, Szczepaniak, a senior, had a change of heart. Even state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township, had chimed in, saying eliminating the pledge was “disgusting.”

Last month, Szczepaniak unilaterally moved to put the pledge back into the agendas permanently and said that he would veto any further removal attempts.

The pledge has been included in the meetings for at least the last 12 years, according to Szczepaniak, who says Student Senate advisers could not find meeting notes further back than 2007.

As one of the five original student cabinet members who voted twice to scrap the pledge, Szczepaniak admits he's learned some things through the ordeal. 

“We had the right intention,” he says. “It was to help build a more inclusive space during our meetings for our members and for any participating students.

“But I realized in conversations around the office that this has really been used as a wedge issue more than anything. And it’s unfortunate. When we heard that any number of our members wanted the pledge, we should have just kept it on there and went forward with it.” 

The backlash has been discouraging for Szczepaniak, who sees the hard work of his organization being overlooked.

“It’s a bit overwhelming,” he says. “There’s plenty of other great work that we do. Our main charge is to help make recommendations to make the university a better place.” 

But it’s hard to stay focused on that task when members are bickering over how to start the meeting. 

While Szczepaniak still doesn’t see the pledge as essential to the goals of his organization, he takes a pragmatic stance:

“People really value the opportunity to stand and choose to partake in the pledge,” Szczepaniak says. “They really value the opportunity to feel like a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to feel like a part of the larger United States. They care about the country. It’s like a guiding principle in certain respects. We should have kept it in as a courtesy.”

Szczepaniak, who hopes for a career in election coordination, understands where his peers are coming from. And he's gotten a good look at what can happen when you inadvertently threaten American values.

Inclusion is a good thing. But removing the guiding principles that a majority of people hold in common for fear of excluding non-citizens is self-defeating. International students come here for a reason — to benefit from the opportunities provided by these United States. American culture and principles, like those embedded in the pledge, are what make this possible. When you threaten those principles, you hinder inclusion and stoke division.

It sounds like Szczepaniak is getting a great education.

Aaron Andrews is an editorial fellow at The Detroit News. 

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