Graduation day is typically a celebration of great accomplishments. For those of us in the 2014 class at the University of Mississippi, however, it posed challenges to everything we had learned in the master’s program in social work
A month before commencement, our keynote speaker, Governor Phil Bryant, signed into law the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act. My colleagues at The University Counseling Center were disturbed by the enactment of a law that seems to invite businesses to discriminate, in the name of religion, against LGBTQ and other minority populations. Governor Bryant, commencement speaker, had just become Governor Bryant, defender of a law that seems to contradict our University’s creed, which includes “respect for the dignity of each person.”
As prospective clinical social workers, we have been taught to promote social justice; but as participants in graduation, we were not sure what to do. We threw around ideas—everything from sit-ins to signs and shouting. One colleague commented, “I haven’t been arrested since the civil rights sit-in when MLK was alive. I feel the need to reprise my role.”
Ultimately, we decided on some social activism and a silent protest. We passed out stickers to local businesses that said, “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling.” At commencement we decorated our caps and gowns with stickers reading, “I Am Mississippi. I Don’t Discriminate” and “I Believe in Respect for the Dignity of Each Person.” I sat up front as the governor began his speech. When he looked my way, I would bow my head to show the two stickers on my mortarboard.
As clinical social workers, we are educated and trained to advocate for people, including ourselves. Even at commencement it is important to remember that, and to bear witness to injustice and the harshness of the world. On this day, I felt proud knowing that I had applied the values that are fundamental to my brand-new master’s degree.