International students denounce Pomona’s decision not to fly non-U.S. flags at commencement

A string of colorful flags hangs across the top edge of a classroom. The flags are from Central and South America countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador, and others.
The Dolores Huerta Room in Pitzer College’s Gold Student Center displays multiple Latin American flags, which Pomona College graduation will not do in May. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

Citing logistical, political and diplomatic concerns, Pomona College may not fly international, territorial or indigenous flags at this year’s commencement ceremony, Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr said at an ASPC meeting Thursday.

The college is currently planning only to fly U.S. and California flags in their normal place on the Marston Quad flagpole, Starr said, but the college is examining options to fly international flags. For the past two years, Pomona had flown flags from international students’ countries at commencement.

Students first became aware that Pomona was planning to change its policy regarding international flags at the April 4 ASPC meeting. In response, outraged international students created a petition with hundreds of signatures and wrote an open letter to Starr.

At the ASPC meeting Thursday, Starr said there are numerous challenges involved in flying the flags.

“It put the college in the position of having to be as absolutely inclusive as possible of the different nations to which individuals have affiliations, and second all the geopolitical challenges that could come from year to year and third each of these different flags has a protocol which is associated with flying it, which can be very hard for us to master,” Starr said.

She added that it is logistically difficult to find all the flags in the same size and was worried they could be stolen or fall due to the weather.

The letter and petition, which has attracted about 750 signatures, were created by International Student Mentors Program head mentors Laura Haetzel PO ’19, Noor Dhingra PO ’20 and Cheryl Yau PO ’19. The letter features quotes from alumni and current students, and links to other colleges that display international identities in a variety of ways.

The campaign also gained support from the Improving Dreams Equality Access and Success (IDEAS) Mentoring Program.

This [decision] erases immigrant communities and other students who don’t feel represented by the U.S. flag, culturally or otherwise,” Haetzel, Dhingra and Yau wrote in the petition. “This erases undocumented and DACAmented folks who have been systematically denied citizenship but still have been fighting long and hard both in college and outside.”

The letter to Starr echoes that sentiment.

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“Removing international flags is to remove the college’s acknowledgements of the contributions of international students, and can hardly be reconciled with Pomona’s commitment to international diversity,” the three mentors wrote.

Pomona will offer students the chance to display a flag, or another image of their choosing, on display screens when they walk up to receive their diplomas, Starr said. Students can also carry a flag of their choosing in the commencement procession or wear a stole displaying a flag.

The administration is also considering other proposals, including flying smaller flags and giving students the opportunity to take pictures with their countries’ flags at another time prior to commencement.

However, some students say Pomona should not fly international flags.

Adrian Suarez del Busto PO ’19, an international student, said Pomona is not an international institution and does not represent students’ home countries.

“We do not need the U.S. or its institutions to celebrate our cultures and support our countries,” Suarez del Busto wrote in a guest opinion piece for TSL. “Flying our countries’ flags at commencement would not be in line with Pomona’s American mission, would subordinate our national pride to American approval and would cover the efforts of the institutions at home that are really putting in the work to uplift our countries.”

ISMP head mentors acknowledged in the petition that dialogue around flags is nuanced.

“Although we recognize that flags, and by extension national boundaries (and identities) are not stable, or unproblematic, flags at graduation have been important to many international students as a mark of our presence,” the petition said.

“The primary purpose of the petition is to demonstrate to the administration what value the flags hold to our community,” Haetzel said. “This applies across communities, that [their flag] really means a lot, especially for people who came a long way for the ceremony or don’t understand English. Seeing that flag means something.”

Last year, controversy over Pomona’s decision not to fly the Puerto Rican flag at graduation prompted a similar student petition, ultimately causing Pomona to reverse its decision.

Becky Hoving contributed reporting.

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Siena Swift

Siena Swift PO '22 is intending to major in politics. She is from Kailua, Hawai'i and is a news staff writer.

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