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Wine bar on 2200 Penn opens doors
By Ella Mitchell, Contributing News Editor • June 14, 2024

Speakers urge MSSC graduates to protect, cherish center at Commencement ceremony

Sage Russell | Senior Photo Editor
A graduate receives their stole at the Multicultural Student Services Center Commencement ceremony.

Students gathered in Lisner Auditorium with their friends and families for the Multicultural Student Services Center’s Commencement celebration on Thursday, where speakers urged graduates to protect the center after they leave GW.

More than 80 graduates, ranging from undergraduates to masters and doctoral students, received MSSC embroidered stoles and members of the LGBTQ+ community received lavender cords. In their addresses to graduates at the ceremony Thursday morning, students and administrative staff acknowledged turbulence this year on campus and at the MSSC following staff departures and urged students to continue contributing to the center to preserve its resources for multicultural students.

“As the interim director of the Multicultural Student Services Center during a challenging academic year, I hope that one of those memories you hold at GW is that of the center,” said Mitchell Foster. 

Foster, who joined the MSSC staff in February, said they hope the MSSC has provided graduates a “place of respite” during difficult times in their college career, and that students were able to build community among themselves and from staff members. Before formally opening the ceremony, Foster added that they hope graduates remember their memories of the MSSC and continue to strive to be the best versions of themselves. 

Jordan Shelby West, the associate vice provost of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement, acknowledged the location of the auditorium as the ancestral homeland of the Piscataway and Anacostan, or Nacotchtank, peoples and a place where enslaved Black people were forced to work for free.

“I recognize the painful past and present history of genocide, forced removal from this space and beyond,” West said.

West said she acknowledged the importance of celebrating graduation weekend, but said there is also a “tremendous amount” of pain, heaviness, hurt, exhaustion and “potential distrust” that people may be feeling.

“Several of you experienced various forms of trauma and instances when you felt you needed to defend your humanity or the humanity of others that you care about because you felt you weren’t being seen, heard, or valued and for that, I’m sorry,” West said. “What job do I have, do we have if our students don’t feel they have a future?” 

The ceremony follows a two-week long pro-Palestinian encampment protest where students and community members across the D.C. region demanded local universities drop charges against student organizers, protect pro-Palestinian speech on campus, divest from companies with ties to Israel, disclose investments and end all academic partnerships with Israel. Last Wednesday, local police cleared the encampment in the early hours of the morning, deploying pepper spray at protesters and arresting at least six GW students. 

To conclude her speech, West shared the beginning lyrics of “Blackbird” by The Beatles, which uses a metaphor of a Blackbird with broken wings to symbolize the Black people fighting to end racial injustice during the Civil Rights Movement.

“Class of 2024, It’s your time to fly,” West said. “Sawubona, I see you. We will always be here for and with you. Home will forever be wherever we come together.”

Uwaila Stewart, who is receiving a master’s degree of public health and served as the graduate program assistant for the ODECE for the last two years, said the MSSC and its staff are the soul of GW.

“There is no other place on this campus more essential to student development, and there’s no other place on this campus that needs to be fiercely protected and defended,” Stewart said. 

Stewart recognized other staff members on stage who she said worked “tirelessly” to support students like herself. She added that community and rest have become key themes in the MSSC.

“In the MSSC, you’ll often hear us use the phrase ‘Being in community’ or ‘Coming together in community,’” Stewart said. “The emphasis we put on community is intentional. The community is the bedrock of the growth that each of you have experienced in the past four years.”

Stewart ended with a quote by Navild Acosta and Sosa, the creators of “Black Power Naps” — an installation in The Museum of Modern Art about practicing rest as a form of repair for past and current injustices. 

“How do we dream if we do not sleep?” Stewart said.

Senior Dominique Hollingsworth, an international affairs major, began the lavender cord ceremony. Hollingsworth said when he first came into the MSSC in 2020 and in 2021, the center was “in transition.” He added that within a few months of him joining, at least four full-time staff members left the MSSC, leaving former director Michael Tapscott, or as some affectionately called him “Mr. T,” to keep the center afloat. 

Hollingsworth said by the time he retired, Tapscott hired AJ King, who would later be joined by Student Program Associate Elise Greenfield and former MSSC Director Dustin Pickett. He added that when the center relocated to the University Student Center from its G Street townhouse, he learned the MSSC “isn’t just a place,” but that it’s a family. 

Hollingsworth said the departure of King and Pickett has once again left the MSSC with only one full-time staff member, Elise Greenfield, who has managed to keep the center afloat with the help of Foster, the MSSC’s interim director. 

“I know why Elise does what she does,” Hollingsworth said. “Like Mr. T, she has a passion and love for her students. These departures left me wondering, what is the purpose of the MSSC? What is its future and how do we create that?”

Hollingsworth said the MSSC is intended to foster a safe space for historically marginalized communities. He read a quote by Bree Newsome, an activist who said she was disinvited from speaking at the MSSC’s King Week in December due to her pro-Palestinian beliefs after University officials rescinded a staff member’s invitation. 

Hollingsworth asked graduates to reflect on how they can support the MSSC, either through financial contributions or spreading awareness.

“Everyone in the community has a role to play in transforming our community,” Hollingsworth said, reading Newsome’s quote. “Everyone must ask themselves what is at stake in these times?”

Foster then invited students who identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community to receive their cord before three staffers presented stoles to graduates. Officials presented stoles in groups of three as graduates walked across the stage to shake West’s hands and take a portrait. One student held a Palestinian flag as they walked across the stage, receiving cheers and applause from audience members. 

Gabriel Young, a 2023 alum in charge of the ceremony, began by acknowledging Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and sharing a story about his grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines for better economic opportunities. 

“I share my family’s story to not only honor their lasting legacy of service but to also encourage you all to share your family’s stories and your own stories knowing yourself,” Young said.

Graduates were able to receive the shirt they would have worn for Convocation and Welcome Day of Service during their first year outside the auditorium and were invited to a reception in the MSSC on the 5th floor of the student center.

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