Notre Dame Students Polarized Over Vice President Mike Pence As Commencement Speaker

Usually, the newly elected commander-in-chief gives the keynote speech at Notre Dame’s May graduation

John Minchillo/AP

Notre Dame senior Xitlaly Estrada got a call after the presidential election from her mother, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the early 90s.

Crying, Irma Estrada told her daughter she couldn’t believe Donald Trump, a man who had used so much anti-Mexico rhetoric on the campaign trail, would soon be the leader of the free world.

Following the announcement that Trump's Vice President Mike Pence will deliver this year's commencement address at Notre Dame, Estrada and her friends believe their big day will be compromised by values that contradict their own.

“A lot of us are concerned for our families’ comfort,” said Estrada, the president of the Latino Student Alliance. 

She and other LSA members, many of them first-generation Americans, worry that their guests will feel unwelcome at a ceremony honoring an administration that has degraded their Hispanic identities. 

“Regardless of who is speaking, this is mine,” Estrada said of her graduation. “But I think it’s a particularly hard moment for my parents.”

In the past, the newly elected commander in chief has often delivered the keynote speech at Notre Dame’s May graduation and received an honorary degree. Four of the last six presidents have made the trip to South Bend, Indiana, during their first year in office.

But after students circulated a petition signed by thousands from the Notre Dame community denouncing the possibility of Trump as speaker, and held several protests, the college sidestepped tradition and asked Indiana's former governor to take the podium.

Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne declined to comment on whether Trump was invited to the May 21 ceremony or if he'll visit the campus in the future. Browne said he expects Pence will be "warmly welcomed," The Associated Press reported.

"But that doesn't mean we won't receive complaints from people who would have preferred someone else," Browne continued. "We typically do."

As for Pence, "It is fitting that in the 175th year of our founding on Indiana soil that Notre Dame recognize a native son who served our state and now the nation with quiet earnestness, moral conviction and a dedication to the common good characteristic of true statesmen,” university President Rev. John Jenkins said in a statement.

In a groupchat with her peers, Natalie Thomas, president of the Black Student Association, has noticed people complaining that the administration circumvented calls from the student body to not extend an invitation to Trump by bringing Pence instead. For some, Trump and Pence are one and the same because of the views they collectively represent. 

Pat Crane, president of Notre Dame College Republicans, said it's a shame that Trump won’t be on the platform during commencement. But he added that he's honored to play host to the first-in-line, whom he called “a wonderful man, a man of God.”

Crane organized “Pizza with Pence” last year, a small gathering with the then-governor and his Republican base at the university.

“It was a great experience for everyone involved,” Crane said.

He expects the vice president’s address in May to unify the student body and give them hope.

"We’re a Catholic institution speaking to Catholic values,” he said, and he believes everyone at Notre Dame will stand in solidarity with Pence on issues like abortion rights and job security.

When asked if Estrada’s concern for her parents’ comfort wasn't valid, he said, “Right.” Neither Trump nor Pence has claimed the president will deport minority American citizens, Crane said, so as long as attendees are in the country legally, he didn’t understand why they’d have a problem with Pence’s address.

“Whatever they can take out of that speech to bring us together, that’s going to be way more valuable than having some random other person speak at our graduation,” he added.

But Jessica Pedroza, vice-president of the Student Coalition for Immigration Advocacy at Notre Dame, doesn't see the speech as a means to unify her peers.

“I think it’s already dividing the class of 2017,” she said. 

“I would have been disappointed if Trump had been invited,” she added. “I’m equally disappointed that Pence is invited because he doesn’t represent the values of Notre Dame.”

She called the vice president’s upcoming appearance “a slap in the face.”

A lesbian herself, Thomas brought up Pence's anti-LGBTQ track record. She called his policies "offensive" and said “they definitely don’t advocate for equality."

Estrada believes the Trump administration is “anti-Catholic in respect to human dignity,” and specifically targeted Pence as “anti-woman.” She cited his alleged support of conversion therapy for members of the LGBTQ community and his attempt to reject Syrian refugees in Indiana as reasons for why she saw him as unfit to stand in front of the class of 2017. A Pence spokesman has said he does not support conversion therapy.

Over four years at Notre Dame, “I’ve been taught to value human dignity, to value the love of the other, the love of the stranger,” Estrada said. “Having a commencement speaker that is diametrically opposed to everything I am and everything I stand for is very heartbreaking.”

Though Pence is the first vice president to give Notre Dame’s keynote speech, he is not a pioneer in stirring controversy on the campus.

President Barack Obama faced protests in 2009 when he received an honorary degree from the Catholic university despite his pro-choice stance. Joe Biden also faced some pushback when he was awarded the Laetare Medal in 2016, alongside former House Speaker John Boehner.

Crane, with the college Republicans, said that by presenting Biden with the Laetare Medal despite his support of LGBTQ and abortion rights, “that hurts every single person who attends Mass every single week,” including Biden, a practicing Catholic.

But Estrada said that when students protested Biden, “policies were very much at the forefront,” whereas undergraduate reactions to a Trump surrogate at commencement are driven more by personal fears.

“I think that some students on campus feel unsafe because of the rhetoric of the Trump administration, and subsequently Mike Pence,” she explained.

Pedroza agreed that comparing Pence to Democratic leaders like Obama was a false equivalency. Unlike past administrations, “Trump and Pence have run a campaign based on hate and fear against certain communities,” she said. 

“Giving Pence an honorary degree minimizes what it means, to a large body of students, to be a part of the Notre Dame community,” Pedroza added.

Because of the keynote speaker, Thomas said that, among other forms of protest, some members of the graduating class are boycotting commencement. But she will still attend to celebrate her own achievements, if not those of the vice president.

"We’ve earned it after working arduously at Notre Dame for four years,” Thomas said.

A spokesperson for Pence did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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