HKFP Voices Politics & Protest

University bans Tibetan flag at commencement ceremony: A student’s plea

By Kalsang Nangpa

I am a first generation Tibetan American student studying at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Tomorrow, while my peers will be carrying their national flags to represent their native countries during the 2017 commencement flag ceremony, I will not be able to do so because of my university’s “internal policy” to only allow flags of countries that are recognised by the US State Department.

Tibet flag

Kalsang carrying the Tibetan flag during a protest in Boston, MA. Photo: Kalsang Nangpa.

In early March, with much excitement, I called my university’s External Relations and University Events office to sign up to carry the Tibetan flag in the Parade of Nations procession during my commencement. While my peers received their approvals on the same day, I had to call the office for four weeks straight before getting a rejection email that said: “Being a state institution and understanding various political sensitivities, we invite students from countries that appear on the US Department of State list of countries recognised by the US Department of State, SEVIS (Students and Exchange Visitor Information System) to carry their country’s flag.”

I was highly upset, frustrated and disappointed with this answer. For the past four years of my life, I considered my school, UMass, to be my home away from home. I have attended so many UMass events with nothing but love and pride for my school. During these events, I would often be filled with joy and hope after hearing my school’s Chancellor proudly claim that our campus was indubitably committed to social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion.

UMass’s decision to refuse to allow me to carry my flag during my commencement ceremony, however, is completely contradictory and does not reflect such values. How can UMass claim to be inclusive and then refuse to include some nations as part of a ceremony that celebrates diversity and achievements of its graduating student body?

Tibet flag

File photo: Cloud.

I find this decision to be very offensive to Tibetans on campus and to all Tibetans. The university says that it took this decision keeping in mind “various political sensitivities”, but by making this decision, UMass is being completely insensitive to students who come from countries that are not on this list. Are our identities and existence any less important just because the federal government does not recognise our countries?

UMass also says that one of reasons they can’t allow the Tibetan flag to be part of the Parade of Nations ceremony is because it is a state institution. The University of California San Diego, despite being a state university and receiving immense pressure from its Chinese students from the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, is still inviting His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, to their commencement this year as the keynote speaker. Therefore, I don’t see why UMass, as a state academic institution, cannot do the same and stand for social justice.

To me, the Tibetan flag is a national symbol that represents my cultural identity and my people’s resilience. Tibet is a nation that was independent prior to the Chinese military’s illegal invasion in 1959. The Tibetan flag is banned in Tibet due to China’s current military occupation, brutal repression and censorship. It shocks me to see the same censorship and ignorance here in the US, especially in an institution of higher education that has adopted a Diversity Strategic Plan to “improve the campus climate of inclusion”.

dalai lama

Dalai Lama. Photo: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

Hundreds and thousands of Tibetans have fled Tibet to exercise their freedom and basic human rights, including my family. My siblings and I are the first generations in our family to ever graduate from college. This graduation ceremony will not only be a special occasion for me, but for my family and community. This is why it is so important for me to represent my country and people by carrying the Tibetan flag and standing amongst my peers who will definitely be carrying their flags with pride and jubilation.

As a result of my dissatisfaction with the school’s decision, I wrote to the chancellor and my class’s commencement speaker, Senator Elizabeth Warren. I requested the two of them to urge the commencement committee to allow me the opportunity to fully express my Tibetan identity at the conclusion of my school year not just for myself, but also for my people and for justice and freedom around the world.

It is my sincere hope that as the Commonwealth’s Flagship Campus, the university leadership will find the moral courage to stand up for its commitment to social justice and inclusion and allow me to carry my Tibetan flag.

Kalsang Nangpa is a Tibetan American living in the United States. She studies Public Health at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Kalsang is an activist and has a passion for dancing, singing and playing tennis.

University bans Tibetan flag at commencement ceremony: A student's plea