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CSU Commencement Speakers Skip The Life Advice, Tell Students To Get Politically Active

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Seniors at Chicago State University now have their degrees after surviving a tumultuous year.

The university was scheduled to close Friday because of the 10-month long state budget impasse. There was some funding this week but the university remains on the brink, which was obvious at the graduation ceremony. The event was not a solemn ceremony. Instead, it was a political rally for students capping a very political school year.

Before the graduation ceremony, Eric Giddens and his fellow nursing school students gathered in black robes and green sashes, finding the right place to line up. Giddens said he’s graduating without a job lined up, but he’s encouraged by his interactions with some clinical sites that told him to check back in after graduation.

Giddens says he’s graduating in spite of everything else going on. Chicago State didn’t get any state money for nearly 10 months because of the impasse at the Statehouse.

Neither did any other Illinois public university.

But Chicago State was the closest to closing. Administrators even canceled Spring Break and moved up graduation just to make sure it’d have the money for seniors like Giddens to finish the semester.

“When we were going through school, everything got rushed up, all the deadlines got pushed up and it was like really stressful. But now that it’s over with, I’m just happy that we made it,” Giddens said. “I feel for the classes that come after us because they’re gonna have it a lot harder than we did but hopefully everything gets resolved.”

It’s still up in the air whether everything will be resolved. Politicians at the statehouse approved $20 million for Chicago State, which is only a portion of what the state usually sends the university. That means there are still big questions about what happens in the Fall.

Before the ceremony even started it was clear Thursday’s commencement ceremony would be a political event. Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn was one of the speakers. Without using current Gov. Bruce Rauner’s name, Quinn repeated some of his 2014 criticisms of Rauner, who’s reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“There’s something wrong when in Illinois the millionaires have gotten in the past year over a half a billion dollars in tax cuts for themselves and they’ve cut higher education and MAP scholarships,” Quinn said.

But other speakers focused more on civil rights. Rev. Jesse Jackson, the main commencement speaker, told students to stand up and kicked off his speech with a call and response that ended with a Prince reference.

“Keep hope alive,” Jackson said. “Purple Rain, let me hear you scream,” he said to an enthusiastic response from the graduates.

Jackson said the Illinois state government’s failure to fund higher education this year is just accelerating what’s already happening at predominantly black universities around the country: a disinvestment.

“The school has become the rallying point for liberation, dignity and consciousness (sic). The lesson of CSU is strong minds break strong chains,” Jackson said.

Jackson compared Chicago State students’ political organizing to desegregation and the Civil Rights movement, and he complimented them for rallying, holding press conferences, getting in politicians’ faces and actually going to Springfield because, he said, their efforts worked.

They got a little money for Chicago State.

The fact that the lobbying worked was not lost on DeWitt Scott, either. He was the student speaker. Like Rev. Jackson, Scott defined the issues facing Chicago State University students as being much bigger than just what’s on the campus on 95th Street. He said they’re issues facing black Chicagoans and black Americans.

Scott told his fellow graduates they had to fight for funding for their school, and also Chicago Public Schools.

“All this is connected,” Scott said. “Many of us running into class at the last minute after we dropped the kid off at CPS or the babysitter, looking for something to eat, all we got is that Popeye’s on 95th. The food desert issue is connected to keeping CSU open which is connected to CPS which is connected to child care, health care. All that is connected.”

Instead of repeating the message of countless graduation speeches before him, telling his fellow students to achieve great things in their jobs and chosen fields, Scott encouraged graduates to stay active in the political arena to fight for Chicago State funding.

“We send a message to Springfield that we ain’t going nowhere. We fighting hard. And you all have grown old in Springfield but we need you to grow up,” Scott said.

Scott’s larger life lesson to his fellow graduates is that even in a place like Springfield, where stubborn leaders have drawn hard lines in the sand, Chicago State students proved that getting active at the statehouse can move people.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.

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