This much was typical: A bagpipe band led a procession at the Johnson State College graduation Saturday morning, which ended in front of a swollen crowd of college graduates and their families and friends.
But the graduation speaker was U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders; he wasn’t there to urge the graduates to follow their dreams or reach for the stars.
Sanders is in a bare-knuckles battle for the future of the country, and he pushed the graduates to enlist — before it’s too late.
As for the commencement itself, more than 350 students received associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Most are from Vermont, but others come from around the nation and around the world.
Sanders began by outlining his personal ties to Johnson State; several family members attended the school. But that didn’t last long.
“I’ll cut to the chase,” he told the graduates. Time for “a dose of reality.”
“We are in a pivotal and dangerous moment in American history,” Sanders said, with the “very survival of democracy” depending on today’s college graduates.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” Sanders said. “It’s something you and you and you get involved in. … I beg of your generation: Do not turn your backs.”
Now is the time to think bold and think big and “fight back. Now is that time.”
Sanders covered the same ground as he did in his 2016 presidential campaign. He fears the United States could become an oligarchy — where the lavishly wealthy control society. Already, the top 1 percent of society owns more wealth than the other 99 percent, and people die because of poverty, starvation and lack of affordable health care.
And now the political system allows money to speak as a voter.
“We elect candidates to represent the wealthiest and most powerful people,” Sanders said. The wealthy can “buy candidates who will do the bidding” of special interest groups that usher yet more lucre into their coffers through tax breaks, while funding is cut for programs like the Woman, Infants and Children Program, which helps poverty-stricken families afford food, and Meals on Wheels, which delivers a fresh, hot and free meal every day to senior citizens who sign up.
“Our job politically is to say no to tax breaks to multibillionaires,” Sanders said.
Sanders praised fast food workers who went on strike in 2015 for a $15 per hour livable wage: “This is how you can make change.”
Sanders supports single-payer health care that would provide Medicare for all, and aims to end the “wage gap” that means a woman earns, on average, 79 cents for every dollar her male counterparts earn.
If he wasn’t already, Sanders then began preaching to the choir about the cost of college. The U.S. needs the best-educated workforce in the world to compete in today’s cutthroat economy. Because of the soaring costs of college, Sanders said the country now ranks No. 11 for workforce education.
“Not acceptable,” he snorted.
That’s why he wants free tuition at public colleges.
“There’s a lot of good news,” Sanders said. He sees the nation pulling away from its dependence on fossil fuel, which contributes to climate change.
“We’re making progress, but there’s much more to do,” he said, commending the graduates on their accomplishments.
“I beg of you, don’t turn your backs on the difficulties and complexities of the world,” Sanders said. “It’s easy to do, but you don’t have that option. You just cannot look away.”
“I support Bernie 100 percent,” said Kristina Michelsen of Hardwick, and she was glad he spoke at Johnson State.
“We all need to hear it. It’s all important. The times are treacherous.”
Nichole Weeks, a Johnson Sate junior who attended the ceremony for a graduating friend, said she was proud Sanders agreed to speak at Johnson.
“Out of all the colleges he could have chosen, it says something that he came to Johnson,” Weeks said. “I like how passionate he is. I really like Bernie.”
She was glad Sanders touched on the wage gap between men and woman, and America’s vanishing middle class.
Sanders also spoke Sunday at the Lyndon State College commencement. Johnson and Lyndon will be united as Northern Vermont University in mid-2018, and Sanders told the crowd the merger will be “a great success for Vermont.”
Other speakers were Johnson State President Elaine C. Collins. political science major Brittany Csik, professional studies major Jennifer A. Carr, and master’s in counseling recipient Elizabeth Danyew of Waterbury.