Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Alternative Commencement Revisited

This article appeared in today's Daily Herald here in Utah valley. It's an ok article, not entirely accurate, it attributes the whole discussion night to me, when it's my dear roommate Ash who started all that. Plus they once again misquote the number at the event as 'a couple hundred' when we counted 1,200! Oh well, c'est la vie. Check out our site for other press coverage of the even including an article Nadar wrote about it. PS, so glad my eyes are closed in this picture! I'm such a nerd!

BRITTANI LUSK - Daily Herald

It all started in Zina Bennion's house years ago. Every Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. a group of friends would meet for discussion nights. They would talk about anything from hip-hop dancing to the crisis in Darfur, Africa.

It was the same group of friends who met on a Sunday night in late March to discuss Brigham Young University's invitation to Vice President Dick Cheney as commencement speaker.

It was there that Ashley Sanders first mentioned the idea of an alternative commencement. The idea, one of many, played out in their minds for weeks.

Many in the community and at BYU applauded the school's decision, regarding it as an honor to host the vice president. But some, like the Wednesday group, balked at the idea because of the vice president's politics -- or simply the fact that he's a politician.

The students, instead of being content to complain in hallways or basements, wanted something bigger, something with impact. So they held their own ceremony, with invitations to former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, former Democratic senatorial candidate Pete Ashdown and activist Jack Healey.

With a lot of help from the Internet, they even raised $23,125 -- more than the $20,000 they needed to pay for the ceremony.

Hundreds of people attended the event in the McKay Events Center at Utah Valley State College.

Now that Ralph Nader has taken his $12,000 and left Utah, the students, named the "BYU 25" by Nader (though the number is not 25 nor even definite), have donated the extra $3,000 dollars they raised to charities -- and they can think about what it all meant.

"We want to give students examples of three speakers who are politically optimistic and who have solved some of the problems facing America in ingenious ways," Sanders said.

What the students learned most, they said, was the impact that a few can have on the many.

"I think it's made individuals stronger," said student organizer Samantha Dickens.

Another organizer learned that determination pays off.

"If you are persistent, you can get a movement started," said Sara Vranes.

There were rough patches on the journey toward an alternative commencement. The students had trouble finding a venue and eventually had to choose the McKay Events Center, which was outside of their price range. Then the students had to raise the money themselves.

"I knew we were going to pull it off the entire time," Vranes said.

Whatever monetary struggles they faced, they also had to deal with backlash from the community, the faculty and even friends who thought they were opposing a decision made by church leaders.

Others thought the whole movement was stupid.

"I'm not a Ralph Nader fan. I think the man is ridiculous," David Balfour, a BYU senior, told the Daily Herald in April.

The day after the alternative commencement, BYU student David Ornegri said the number of his Facebook friends had dropped.

The students also received positive feedback. Ornegri got positive text messages during the ceremony. The Facebook group for the alternative commencement is plastered with positive messages like this one: "The commencement was wonderful -- powerful and articulate. Congratulations for pulling off such a successful event."

People -- even some conservative parents -- were inspired that this group of young adults could come together and pull it off.

Vranes said her conservative father came to visit the weekend the students held their first fundraiser. He gave $50 to the cause.

"That was a miracle in and of itself," Vranes said.

Mark Vranes, who said he likes Cheney, said he supported the cause, half to support his daughter and half because he liked what Ralph Nader did for consumers during the 1970s when Nader fought for safer cars.

"[Ralph Nader] saved my life when he got the Corvair off the market," Mark Vranes said.

Many of the BYU 25 weren't even in line for graduation.

Bennion, who hosted all those discussion nights, will spend the summer working at a nonprofit ranch and plans to stay active in local politics.

Dickens still has two years left in the social work program. She plans to host an event to bring Latino and white cultures together in Provo.

Vranes is thinking about attending law school when she finishes her undergraduate work. Now, she is planning to lobby the governor and others for more money to support domestic violence and rape prevention.

The extra money the students raised has been donated to Gallery One Ten in Provo, The Eugene and Charlotte England Education Fund and to establish a chapter of Mormons for Equality and Social Justice in Utah County.

Raquel Smith Callis, who runs Gallery One Ten, and others helped the students by hosting dinners for the guests. She said all of the money will go toward operating costs.

Charlotte England allowed the students to use her bank account to collect funds. She met the students for the first time Wednesday night when she invited them all to dinner at her house. In the falling darkness, the students joked about the label BYU 25. Not one of them knows what it really means or who is or isn't included in Nader's label for the group.

Chris Foster, one of the friends, looked up and asked, "Am I in the 25?"

The group just laughed.


Douglass Family said...

GO ZINA! You are now a famous little star according the the Daily Herald. Glad to hear your efforts were a great success!
Call me soon, we need to keep in touch!
luff ya

Camille Funk said...

Zi- I'm so proud of you! You are such an example to me of standing for what you believe. :)

I heart Zina~

eped said...

looking at this picture again makes me want to make a mini-series about you guys, who are awesome.

maybe "everybody loves the BYU 25"
or "zuddenly zoobies"