Before U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos addressed the graduating class of Bethune-Cookman University, the sound of jeers reverberated through the auditorium.
The cringing moment captured on cell phone video and uploaded to social media platforms inevitably made DeVos a trending topic. It was a day which she will want to forget.
But it’s nothing personal, asserted new graduate Kendra Witter.
“This wasn’t a personal attack against Betsy DeVos,” 22-year-old Witter told FYINTERTAINMENT via email. “We the students and alumni do not believe her policies and those of the Trump administration, are in the best interest of the university. We took a stand to protect and honor the legacy of our illustrious founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.”
Students — including Witter— and alumni looked to protect Dr. Bethune’s legacy when it was first announced DeVos would deliver the school’s commencement speech. A petition circulated online asking the Florida university to disinvite DeVos after she made controversial remarks about historically black colleges and universities.
DeVos lauded HBCUs as “real pioneers” of school choice, although the founding of schools was an answer to a segregated United States educational system.
Edison O. Jackson, president of the historically black college, defended his decision — one Witter called “abominable” — in an essay for the Orlando Sentinel.
“Some have rescinded invitations to potentially controversial speakers,” Dr. Jackson wrote. “That is not my intention with DeVos. I am of the belief that it does not benefit our students to suppress voices that we disagree with or to limit students to only those perspectives that are broadly sanctioned by a specific community.”
DeVos stepped to the podium, prepared to speak to the new graduates and their loved ones and before she could open her mouth, she was met with boos and turned backs.
“I wish I can find the perfect words to describe the energy in the room, said Witter. “It was amazing to see most of the auditorium stand by us. The boos were powerful and strong. It was unreal. This is a day I will never forget. I am honored to be a part of the history that my class has made.”
Witter had always known she wanted to attend an HBCU, thanks in part to her favorite high school teachers Sophia Burrows and Tia Wanton, who are also HBCU graduates.
“Attending an HBCU was the best choice I have ever made,” Witter said. “HBCUs help students earn a higher education and help gain a sense of identity and heritage, and a nurturing atmosphere experience.”
Witter became the first in her family to graduate from college Wednesday. In possession of a criminal justice degree, she intends to apply for law school next year. While she is truly grateful for the opportunities Bethune-Cookman has afforded her, she is disappointed in the school’s handling DeVos appearance.
“The choice [BCU] have made took away a special moment from us the graduates. This was a special moment for us,” Witter said. “We worked hard for four years and more for this special day and it was slightly ruined by the appearance of Betsy DeVos.”
But rest assure the students of Bethune-Cookman are more than the headlines that have dominated the news in the past 24 hours. They are capable and ready for the workforce, said Witter.
“Dr. McLeod in her Last Will & Testament said, ‘I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another,’ and that is my goal to help me and my classmate all find career jobs.”