Ds Scholarship

Be aware of ‘distortions of reality’

Marissa Inga and Ilana Char stood just on the edge of Michigan Stadium on Saturday morning, wide smiles and laughs spilling out as they mugged for selfies and FaceTime calls.

It’s been two years since the pair last walked the University of Michigan’s campus, sweating out exams and research papers.

Their 2020 class didn’t get a chance to have a traditional commencement ceremony. It was canceled at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the wait didn’t dampen their spirits.

“In some ways it’s better,” Inga said. “We aren’t worried about jobs and what’s next and where we are going. It’s kind of nice to be settled in and come back. It’s like a high school reunion, only better. And having Dr. (Anthony) Fauci as the speaker is perfect.”

As Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, entered the stadium, he marched down the center of the field with the rest of the university’s top administrators and board members. As students became aware of his presence, many stood and cheered. A few groups also started chanting his name. He acknowledged the students with waves.

In his brief speech, Fauci called on graduates to seek out truth and critically evaluate what is going on in public life. He didn’t shy away from tough words, calling out “egregious distortions of reality” by people on social media, by “so-called news organizations and sad to say, certain officials in positions of power.”

He said the graduates have the responsibility to stand for truth and facts.

Between 4,000 and 5,000 graduates flooded Michigan Stadium’s floor for the ceremony. In addition to the class of 2020, some members of the class of 2021 were in attendance.

A large 2020 banner hung in front of the podium on a large stage stretching across one end zone. Parents and other guests filled in both sides of the stadium, with more sitting behind the end zone at the opposite end of the stadium under crystal-clear blue skies and temperatures climbing well over the 60-degree mark.

It was a full-out party atmosphere, with graduates running up to each other all over the field, offering huge hugs and many exclaiming loudly: “You made it! I didn’t know if you were coming.”

From the start of the ceremony, the speakers didn’t shirk references to what students faced during their time at UM.

Anne Curzan, dean of UM's College of Literature, Science and the Arts speaks during the Comeback Commencement for the Class of 2020 at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, May 7, 2022.

“Two years later and how beautiful to be here with you,” said Anne Curzan, the dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. She told the graduates she recorded her 2020 commencement speech from her home with her cat looking on. She walked through an empty campus on graduation day and saw one lone student in cap and gown getting some pictures taken. “It was bone sad,” she recalled. “We were all discombobulated.”

She then told graduates the problems of the past year had proven to graduates they could overcome problems.

Interim President Mary Sue Coleman echoed those themes.

Adversity. No worries, you’ve been there,” Coleman said. And when the world gets tough, “remember you graduated during a global pandemic.”

UM president Mary Sue Coleman speaks during the Comeback Commencement for the Class of 2020 and 2021 at the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, May 7, 2022.

Occasionally a loud truck horn from protesters gathered outside could be heard.

A couple dozen protesters rallied outside Michigan Stadium before the graduation ceremony began, signs decrying Fauci and the COVID-19 vaccines.

Among the protesters was the former Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, who ran for governor in 2018 and has also pushed debunked theories about the 2020 election.

He was joined by his wife, Angie Colbeck, who said Saturday’s protests were aimed at COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

“Vaccine mandates are not logical,” she said. “People that get vaccinated can still get and transmit COVID.”

While COVID-19 transmission can still take place among vaccinated individuals, fully vaccinated individuals who contract a breakthrough case of COVID-19 are less likely to develop serious illness than those who are unvaccinated, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Republican Lena Epstein, a former congressional candidate who is currently vying for a spot on the UM Board of Regents, also stood with anti-vaccine demonstrators, asking those walking by to support her in the November election.

People protest Anthony Fauci outside of the Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor during the Comeback Commencement for the Class of 2020 and 2021 on Saturday, May 7, 2022.

In addition to demonstrators holding signs outside of the Big House, the “Trump Unity Bridge,” a float celebrating former President Donald Trump, led a convoy of trucks driving around the stadium. Written on the side of several trucks were the words “The Indiana People’s Convoy.”

A marching drummer also walked around the famous arena, joined by a man wearing a Revolutionary War-style coat holding the American flag.

Colby Goettelman, who traveled from Boston to attend the ceremony for her sister who graduated from UM, said the demonstrations outside the stadium were a distraction from the accomplishments of the graduates being celebrated inside.

“Everyone has the right to an opinion,” she said. “But this is so disrespectful.”

Six Michigan State Police officers were stationed at the gate where the protesters gathered. At one point, officers had to separate a protester and someone attending the ceremony after the two began shouting at each other.

There were no visible inside the stadium.

Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or djesse@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj. Subscribe to the Detroit Free Press.

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