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Stanford Report, June 19, 2002

Class of 2002 departs on a mix of serious, celebratory notes

BY BARBARA PALMER

The annual parade of high spirits and creativity known as the Wacky Walk ran at full throttle Sunday morning before the Commencement ceremony, but this year, more serious messages were mixed in with the tissue-paper palm trees that swayed atop mortarboards and the clouds of gauzy butterfly wings worn over graduation robes.

Along with a few references to the flattened U.S. economy and the dearth of jobs for new graduates -- a group of students spelled out "Unemployed!" with bed pillows -- students organized a message of opposition to the appearance of former Provost Condoleezza Rice, now national security adviser in the Bush administration, and to foreign policy following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Just before the processional began, near where a group of male graduates was passing around a bottle of cognac and smoking cigars, Nina Robertson passed out red fliers and paperclips, and asked graduates to clip the sheets onto their mortarboards. The fliers suggested that students, faculty and spectators use the red sheets to register a protest against actions taken by Rice in her roles as national security adviser, provost and former member of the board of directors of Chevron.

Four thousand of the fliers were distributed before Commencement to students and visitors, said Robertson, who majored in earth systems. About two dozen students held up the fliers during the formal ceremony and a handful of protesters held them aloft as they walked back and forth along the inside perimeter of the stadium.

Kevin Gibbs, who received a masters' degree in computer science, wore a white T-shirt over his graduation robe proclaiming, "Protest Wacky Walk." He also carried a sign that read "Silence the Voices," in what he called a counter-protest to the organized protest. The protesters "don't want to hear a voice they disagree with," he said.

Outside the stadium, about 40 protesters quietly held up signs criticizing U.S. foreign policy. Wearing his cap and gown, Joel Beinin, a professor of history who joined the protesters, said the group aimed to express themselves "politely and civilly." Among them were eight members of the "Raging Grannies," who sang protest songs accompanied by an accordion. Most of the women belonged to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, said member Gail Sredanovic of Menlo Park. With their flower-trimmed straw hats, shawls and embroidered aprons -- which purposely underlined their status as mature women -- they looked ready to step into the Wacky Walk themselves.

Lt. Del Bandy of the Department of Public Safety said police worked with the picketers without incident. A banner was allowed in the stadium, but protesters were required to station themselves away from other spectators. "We told them they can't block the view," Bandy said.

Shows of support for U.S. policy were in evidence as well: Michael Seitz, who received a bachelor's degree in economics, literally wrapped himself in a full-sized American flag. He wore the flag to show his approval of U.S. foreign policy "as far as it stands now," Seitz said.

Graduate Serena Evans said that although she disagreed with some of Rice's political views, she thought Rice kept her remarks at the ceremony as apolitical as possible. "She was sneaking some stuff in there, but mostly she was trying to be motivational," said Evans, who received a degree in Science, Technology and Society and wore a Jamaican flag over her robe to honor her Jamaican American parents.

Rice's remarks seemed "appropriate" said Hanno Lustig, who admitted he wasn't listening intently. "I was kind of excited," said the native of Belgium, who was awarded a doctorate in economics. "I was thinking more about the road ahead of me."

'Thanks, Mom and Dad'

Expressions of gratitude to parents -- and the occasional exclamation of relief -- seemed to outnumber political messages at Sunday's ceremony. "I finally graduated -- and I did it my way," read one sign pinned to a black robe.

Joel Sangria and friends carried a sign that read "Salamat Po," which is a formal expression of thanks in Tagalog, intended to show special respect to their families. Sixteen relatives had made the eight-hour drive from Cerritos, Calif., to see Sangria graduate with degrees in economics and comparative studies in race and ethnicity. Although she and her husband stayed at a hotel less than a mile away, Nena Sangria, Joel's mother, got up at 5 a.m. Sunday morning to make sure she got to the ceremony on time. The family came into the stadium at 8 a.m., as soon as the gates were opened.

Alex Newell, who spent her sophomore year as mascot for the Stanford Band, came wearing her towering Tree costume -- complete with robe and mortarboard. On the stadium lawn, Newell said she found herself serving as a reference point for cell-phone-wielding classmates who stood beside her and then called up to their parents to say, "I'm down here by the Tree."

"Whenever I move, people with cell phones are following me," she said.

What next?

One topic that the graduates weren't discussing much on Sunday was life after graduation, said Newell. "Mostly parents" were asking students about their plans, she said.

When Nathan Johnston, from Mount Shasta, Calif., entered Stanford as a freshman to study computer science, the technology boom was in full swing. He graduated with a bachelor's degree last December and has spent the last five months teaching snowboarding in Europe.

However, the downturn isn't a huge disappointment to him, he said. "I was never really into that scene. I wasn't looking for some fluffy dot-com job. The engineering part was more interesting to me." Johnston has worked at Apple Computer in the past and might go back, he said. "Or I might go to music school."

"It's hard to see friends graduate without jobs," said John DeNero, from Pasadena, Calif., who graduated with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and computational science and a master's degree in philosophy. Although DeNero was hired for a management consulting position, the current job market stops the people who have found jobs from celebrating very much, he said. "It added a lot of stress to the end of the year."