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Columbian College student speaker denounces GW for dining employee’s allegedly illegal firing

Student speaker and distinguished scholar Paul Seltzer gave a speech about how his liberal arts education taught him to question decisions, like when longtime J Street employee Rochelle Kelly was fired. Cameron Lancaster | Contributing Photo Editor

The student speaker at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’s second graduation ceremony Saturday spent his few minutes at the podium to decry campus dining administrators for their allegedly illegal firing of a 25-year employee.

Distinguished scholar Paul Seltzer told his peers and their families the story of how his liberal arts education led a campaign to rehire Rochelle Kelly, a J Street employee who was fired for taking too much time off after her heart attack and her husband’s stroke, advocates say.

Seltzer described how that GW’s liberal arts environment taught him to be curious and ask questions like why campus dining employees were experiencing an environment with “drastically decreasing hours, wage cuts, verbal abuse and mass lay offs, all while the GW administration remains silent.”

“It’s important to remember we’re only just beginning the role of world changing that the liberal arts has taught us to pursue,” Seltzer said.

He also said he learned that collective action is the key to power, speaking about how his student organization, the Progressive Student Union, launched a campaign that handed more than 400 letters from students, faculty, alumni and parents asking J Street’s general manager to rehire Kelly within 48 hours of being let go.

He then solicited the audience members to take up the fight with him, reciting the email addresses of J Street general manager Bernadette Thomas and Director of Campus Support Services Nancy Haaga, who oversees campus dining. Seltzer recieved loud cheers from the audience.

“The fact that we do that work together means that we have immense power,” Seltzer said.

Elizabeth Simonofsky, who graduated with an art history degree in December but walked with her class Saturday, said she thought Seltzer’s speech was good change from traditional graduation speeches. She said she wasn’t aware of the campaign before but said she would email the administrators after hearing it.

“I liked that he used it as an opportunity to let everybody else know about it,” Simonofsky said. “I thought it was very brave and a good use of his time.”

The ceremony where graduates picked up their diplomas also saw a brief speech from assistant professor of American studies Jennifer Nash, who said when crafting her speech she wanted to make sure the graduates would remember what she was saying, unlike her own graduation years ago.

Focusing on the specific and tangible, she said the hardest part of graduating was the lack of community, as her college friends were all scattered around the city and could hardly ever get more than two together at once. But, she said through teaching, she has found the solution.

“Community requires commitment,” Nash said. “Community doesn’t require a fancy space to incubate. It can even happen at 9:35 on a Monday morning in a subterranean lecture hall, as long as we are committed to being present for each other.”


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