Korematsu raises civil rights call in Commencement speech

Americans have the moral imperative to challenge prejudice courageously, welcome immigrants and understand that voting is a privilege and power to be used for good, 2019 Commencement speaker Karen Korematsu told Saint Michael’s College’s graduates on Sunday morning, May 12, in the Ross Sports Center

See images from the Commencement ceremony >>

“We want your generation to understand the dangers of racism and racial profiling and the injustice of treating immigrants like they don’t belong,” said Korematsu, a civil rights advocate, public speaker, and public educator whose civil liberties work is motivated by the experiences of her father in a World-War-II-era incarceration camp for Japanese Americans and his subsequent civil rights activism.

Sunday’s program for the 112th Saint Michael’s Commencement listed 454 undergraduates – 236 Bachelor of Arts (BA) and 218 Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees, plus about 80 master’s degree recipients. A handful of names among those were not called in all categories due to various requirements that are still being completed, or for other reasons.

Also receiving Saint Michael’s Honorary Degreesgallagher along with Korematsu at the ceremony were William Gallagher (left) and David LaMarche ’60 (right), each a longtime generous supporter of the College. Gallagher is a former chair of College’s Trustees and co-founder/CEO of Atlantic Data Services, Inc., a Massachusetts financial services and information-technology-strategy firm, while LaMarche was a longtime business faculty member LaMarcheand administrator at the College.

It was the first Commencement at the Saint Michael’s helm for President Lorraine Sterritt, inaugurated just last summer, and in her brief Commencement remarks she spoke of a having a special bond with this class for that reason. Saturday evening, the president joined the honorary degree recipients and hundreds packing the large Chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel for the overflowing Baccalaureate Mass, presided over by Burlington Bishop Christopher Coyne. A smaller dinner followed in the Dion Family Student Center for honorees and special guests. Korematsu said in dinner remarks and again Sunday that the Baccalaureate liturgy and music were strikingly powerful and moving to her and that she felt a strong connection to the College and its mission. Both Saturday and Sunday featured weather that was cool and cloudy with rain holding off, allowing a festive outdoor reception for graduates and their families in the large Green in front of the Durick Library after the ceremony. They gathered at tables with faculty by majors and enjoyed food from Sodexo.

Lessons from history

Korematsu said this year would be her late father’s 100th birthday and also mark the 75th anniversary of her father’s Supreme Court case, but “we have not learned the lessons of history,” she said, noting parallels between her dad’s wrongful incarceration and “the racial and religious profiling that Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, South Asians [face].”

Just as she had such a strong inspirational example from her father of what it looks like to fight peacefully but firmly for social justice, Korematsu said, Saint Michael’s students also have an inspiring legacy processionalin the Edmundites who founded the College –  most immigrants from France, educating largely the local children of immigrants in the College’s early years; and in later generations, she noted, Edmundites were at the forefront of social justice activism in the American South during the Civil Rights Era, in Selma, AL and elsewhere.

Some of Korematsu’s exhortations to the graduates: “We have lost respect in this country. We need to learn to appreciate each other’s differences and not be afraid of them” … [but] don’t be afraid … prejudice is ignorance ... education is our most powerful weapon.” Also, “We must vote -- voting is our privilege and our responsibility, we need to stop treating the right to vote as a throw-away. Our strongest voice is to vote.”

She told the inspiring story of her father, who during the 1940s disobeyed military orders, resulting in a landmark case, Korematsu vs. the U.S., which at the time upheld detaining Japanese Americans in prison camps. She said her father felt strongly then about something that is still true today: that “We are a land of immigrants, and it is not right that immigrants have become a negative instead of positive. That is not what America is about.” Those words early in her talk inspired the Saint Michael’s audience, students and their families, to applaud -- and they gave a standing ovation to Korematsu at the end of her address.

She told how her dad faced racist prejudice growing up as one of four sons of Japanese parents in the San Francisco Bay area, how he huggerstried to enlist in the military but was denied multiple times; then, after Pearl Harbor came President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 giving the “right” to incarcerate anyone with 1/32 Japanese ancestry in American prison camps, she said.

“Now you know what executive orders are like!” she said, alluding pointedly to headlines of present-day politics. “All due process was denied – all were American citizens and a third under the age of 18.” Sadly, in 1944 the Supreme Court ruled against his legal challenge to his arrest and detention for violating military orders. Not until 40 years went by in 1983 was her father’s Supreme Court case reopened with evidence causing a judge to overturn his conviction. “This was the trial Japanese-Americans never had, and finally justice had prevailed. My father felt vindicated in his belief that there had been government misconduct.”

She told students her dad never gave up hope on the case -- just as they should not in fighting for just causes “The reason I’m telling you this is my father was never bitter or angry, never blamed anybody, it was simply a matter that he was right and the government was wrong. My father lived by his principles of right and wrong and treated everyone as he would want to be treated.”

Korematsu said her dad was a quiet man who only wanted to be recognized as an American and a patriot. He died in 2005 and charged his daughterstone and dog with continuing his work, which she has done through the Fred. T. Korematsu Institute with the mission of “educating to advance racial equality, social justice and human rights for all.” Her dad never told her about his history until she happened upon the case during a high school classmate’s report. When she asked, he affirmed that he was the person in the case; years later near his death was when he charged his daughter with carrying on the civil rights work he started and pursued for decades based on his experiences.

“My father was always afraid it could happen again ... Pay attention .... Fred Korematsu was a person who could make a difference and so can you. Never give up… never take no for an answer, be courageous, be the possible change! When you see something wrong, protest but not with violence or they won’t listen to you. . But don’t be afraid to speak up," Korematsu told students.

Celebrating Academic Achievement

Sunday’s Commencement chiefly focused, as always, on academic achievement of the graduates. Jeffrey Trumbower, vice president of academic affairs and master of ceremonies, announced the top academic prizes: The 2019 valedictorians, all with perfect 4.0 averages, were Lorie Blais, a biology major with minors in chemistry and psychology from Lyndeborough, N.H.; Emily Ferreri, a biology major with minors in chemistry, psychology and religious studies from Hyde Park, N.Y., and Kalli Opsal, a biology and religious studies double-major with a minor in chemistry from Farmington, MN. Trumbower said 53 graduates completed the rigorous Honors Program and many dozens were inducted into various national honor societies.

The Katherine Fairbanks Memorial Award and Father Prevel Memorial Award are for the woman and man, respectively, “demonstrating commitment and achievement related to the intellectual, spiritual, moral and social values of Saint Michael’s College.” Fairbanks winner was Emily Ferreri, who along with her stellar academics was a star of the women’s basketball team as a senior captain, and active in many community activities such as supporting COTS, Special Olympics and the fight against breast cancer. diversity closeup

Prevel winner was Ryan Hay, a magna cum laude graduate in Spanish from South Glens Falls, NY. Hay studied in Granada, Spain, his junior year and was a leader in the Saint Michael’s orchestra as one of the College’s top music students. The VPAA praised Hay’s creativity and inclusive, high-energy leadership style, noting his deep involvement in Campus Ministry activities including retreats and music, and being coordinator for Little Brother Little Sister. His goal is to be a bilingual professional in the medical field.

The graduate-student address came from Iuliia Fakhrutdinova from the TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) master’s program, who is studying in the U.S. by way of Russia and her birthplace of Uzbekistan. She told of the inspiring and heroic hard work that her parents invested in her success, taking pains to expose her to books and culture even through the hard years of the fall of the Soviet Union and with little higher education themselves. Her theme was about each person’s “path in life.” She plans to go on to study Applied Linguistics at UMass Boston.

Winston Jones II, a psychology and education studies double-major from Valley Stream, NY, (below left) and of the Senior Class was chosen by classmates to speak.Winston After some good-natured and well-received joking with his classmates and varsity basketball teammates, the popular scholar-athlete shared some of what he calls “Winnie Wisdom, free of charge,” as such wisdom he is known to share on social media. Much of it came from his mother, who “always has been my personal therapist,” he said, thanking her for the blessing of her wise advice over the years on Mother’s Day, which was being observed Sunday. He said his mother “simply told me to listen and observe,” and, “This advice has catapulted me into positions beyond measure.”

The main music selection directly prior to conferral of degrees was the song “I  Hope You Dance” by Mark D. Sanders & Tia Sillers, performed by Patricia Kohn ’19 on vocals, Alexander Bigelow ’19 on guitar and John Sweeney ’20 on drum.

President Sterritt told graduates she knew emphatically that they are prepared  to go out in the world, flower girland knew equally emphatically that they still do not know everything they will need to know in their lives – yet, she knows that thanks to their Saint Michael’s education they are prepared to think about new solutions to age-old problems, to think of others and about the environment, about faith; and also prepared to learn from others and from new experiences; and to care about outcomes, each other and themselves. “So, continue to think, to learn and to care,” Sterritt said. “You are our future, and you are prepared for it,” she said, reminding them they always will be welcomed home to Saint Michael’s all their lives.

Other presenters in the ceremony include an invocation from Rev. Brian Cummings, S.S.E. ’86, director of Edmundite Campus Ministry; a welcome early on from Mary-Kate McKenna ’80, chair of the Board of Trustees; a welcome to the Alumni Association after conferral of degrees from Craig Duffy ’06, president of the Alumni Association; and benediction by Very Rev. David Cray, S.S.E. ’68, superior general of the Edmundites. Sponsors and presenters to Honorary Degree recipientshappy grad were Jennifer Purcell of the history faculty to Karen Korematsu, John Trono of the computer science faculty to William Gallagher, and Robert Letovsky of the business faculty to David LaMarche.

The St. Andrew’s Pipe Band of Vermont led the processionals into and out of the ceremony with President Sterritt and the valedictorians leading the departure. The National Anthem was sung by Wenssy Steva Nussy M’19. VPAA Trumbower was master of ceremonies, grand marshal was Peter Harrigan, MFA ’83, professor of Fine Arts, and faculty marshal was Melissa VanderKaay Tomasulo, professor of psychology.