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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Samira Asma-Sadeque and agency

Students graduate around the country, with flags, politicians and a furry friend

Kamala Harris passes out degrees at the West Point graduation ceremony on 27 May 2023.
Kamala Harris passes out degrees at the West Point graduation ceremony on 27 May 2023. Photograph: John Angelillo/UPI/Shutterstock

A Colorado high school student defied a federal judge’s ruling and wore a Mexican flag sash to her high school graduation after fending off repeated resistance from the school.

The event was just one of a clutch of unusual graduations and commencements across the country in the last week, with some firsts – and one furry companion.

Naomi Peña Villasano, a graduating senior at Grand Valley high school in Parachute, Colorado, uncovered her sash below her ceremonial gown just as she went up on stage to be awarded her diploma, Insider reported.

She had said in a petition started last month that the school was prohibiting her from wearing a “customized sash” that would partly feature the Mexican flag as well as the US flag, because the school said it could be “offensive”.

“I will not allow my culture, heritage, and nationality to be shut down from being represented,” Villasano said in a petition. She then sued the Garfield county school district to be able to wear the sash, but a judge ruled for the school two days ago, the Associated Press reported.

Villasano had checked with the principal about wearing a “serape-style sash” but was told it would “open too many doors”, the court was told as it heard the student’s lawsuit last week, including if a student wanted to wear a confederate flag, for example.

Naomi Peña Villasano poses with her sash of both the Mexican and American flags.
Naomi Peña Villasano with her sash of both the Mexican and American flags. Photograph: Daisy Jasmin Estrada Borja/AP

“I’m a 200 percenter – 100% American and 100% Mexican,” Villasano told a recent school board meeting.

She received a lot of support from peers to defy the court ruling, although some complained that the fuss overshadowed celebrations, and displayed the sash without reprimand in the end.

Among other unusual ends to the school semester, in Ripon, Wisconsin, Ella Weiske walked across the stage with robotic legs for her graduation in what marked an emotional moment for her family, the local Fox 11 station reported. Weiske was born with cerebral palsy and has used a wheelchair all her life.

On Saturday, she received a standing ovation from those present as she walked to receive her diploma.

And in New Jersey, the service dog of a graduating college student was awarded a degree last week.

Justin, the six-year-old service dog of student Grace Mariani, walked alongside her at the graduation ceremony at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, multiple outlets reported, where the labrador-golden retriever mix was given his own honorary degree.

In a video shared by the university on Twitter, which soon went viral, Justin is seen sniffing the degree a few times before accepting it, and then holding it between his teeth like a bone.

The audience erupted in cheers as a delighted Mariani rolled in her wheelchair next to him, and shook hands with other officials on the stage.

Meanwhile, over the weekend, US vice-president Kamala Harris became the first woman to deliver a commencement speech at the West Point army academy, in New York, lauding graduating cadets on Saturday for their noble sacrifice in serving their country, while noting they were entering an “unsettled world” because of Russian aggression and the rising threats from China.

“Autocrats have become bolder, the threat of terrorism persists and an accelerating climate crisis continues to disrupt lives and livelihoods,” she noted.

On Sunday, former Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney implored new college graduates not to compromise when it comes to the truth, excoriating her House Republican colleagues for not doing enough to combat former US president Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen, as she delivered the commencement speech at her alma mater, Colorado College.

“After the 2020 election and the attack of January 6 [2021], my fellow Republicans wanted me to lie. They wanted me to say the 2020 election was stolen, the attack of January 6 wasn’t a big deal, and Donald Trump wasn’t dangerous,” Cheney said, adding: “I had to choose between lying and losing my position in House [of Representatives] leadership.”

Cheney, the daughter of the Republican vice-president during the George W Bush administration, Dick Cheney, lost her leadership position and later her congressional seat after voting to impeach Trump for the insurrection at the Capitol and then not relenting in her criticism of the former president.

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