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The Notre Dame student organization WeStaNDFor led a walkout during Vice President Mike Pence’s address during the school’s commencement.
Laken Litman/IndyStar

SOUTH BEND — When Mike Pence took the stage at Notre Dame’s commencement on Saturday, more than 100 students quietly got up from their seats and left. There were a few cheers. Some boos.

This was not a surprise, but rather a staged protest some students had been planning for weeks. When Notre Dame announced that the vice president and former governor of Indiana would be the university’s 2017 graduation speaker in March, the student organization WeStaNDFor began brainstorming ways to take a stand.

Bryan Ricketts, who served as Notre Dame’s student body president from 2015-16 and graduated Sunday with a dual-degree in political science and chemical engineering, was one of the leaders. Ricketts told IndyStar that many of his peers were “upset and hurt” by the school’s decision to invite Pence because his “policies have impacted the humanity of certain graduates.”

About 100-plus students filed out of gates 27 and 28 of Notre Dame Stadium. They knew that once they left graduation, they would not be able to re-enter.

WeStaNDFor explained in a release that they are primarily protesting Pence’s opposition to gay rights, his attempts as governor to prevent Syrian refugees from resettling in Indiana, his support of President Donald Trump’s immigration travel ban, and his opposition to sanctuary cities that do not enforce federal immigration laws.

The group posted instructions for how to walkout on their website:

“Walk away from Pence quietly, in confidence, with your head up high, taking your time. Embrace the moment, maybe even hold hands/lock arms with those joining you.”

Students had previously met with the Notre Dame police chief to figure out the most peaceful and “respectful” way to exit the stadium, Ricketts said. The university was aware of the protests ahead of time. Paul Browne, vice president for public affairs and communications, said in a statement that they’d only intervene “if the ceremony was seriously disrupted or anyone’s safety was put at risk.”

“I think it’s a disgrace,” said Nataline Duffy, who was in attendance with her husband Thomas from New Jersey to watch their son graduate. “We think it’s in poor taste. We think it’s disrespectful. It’s so unnecessary. This is a good man who is coming here for graduation.

“I wonder about this new generation, how they do this kind of thing. And I think better of Notre Dame students that they’d do this kind of thing. But it’s a very small group. I don’t think they represent Notre Dame at all.”

Duffy said her son, who graduated from a five-year MBA computer science program, did not participate in the walkout and did not know any students protesting.

Before the walkout, valedictorian C.J. Pine gave a powerful speech about his time in South Bend. Born in the United States, he was raised in Tianjin, China and studied abroad in Israel and Jordan. Standing feet away from Pence, he told anecdotes of experiences with Syrian refugees, called for freedom of religion and equal rights. He organized the student advocacy group Solidarity with Syria and an awareness campaign directed to counter Islamophobia on campus.

He cited those experiences as well as his passion for current affairs in his speech.

“If we are going to build walls against American students and international students, then I am skewered on the fence,” he said.

Pine received a standing ovation. After graduation, he plans to work for the State Department in Washington, D.C.

Ricketts said he received a little hate mail leading up to the walkout.

“I think people are upset we’re protesting at all,” he said. “But I have to say, it’s important for people to be able to speak their minds. Protests during (President Barack) Obama’s commencement (in 2009) ruined graduation weekend for some people and we want to be respectful of everybody who is attending the weekend.”

There were also protests just south of campus on Angela Blvd. by local activist groups. Among those represented were We Go High!, a human rights group formed after Donald Trump was elected, the Michiana Alliance for Democracy, Planned Parenthood and the Indiana Reproductive Justice Coalition. About 300 people chanted: “Love, not hate, makes America great.”

“We are not protesting their choice of a commencement speaker,” said organizer April Lidinsky of Planned Parenthood and the IRJC. “We are unwelcoming Mike Pence back to Indiana with the idea that nobody knows Pence’s record as well as Hoosiers do.”

Student protests against Pence coming to commencement began in late April. Ricketts and others distributed 500 rainbow pride flags around campus that had been donated by alumni. WeStaNDFor created a Facebook page for the event and urged students to hang flags from their windows to demonstrate solidarity against Pence’s address.

“The flag drop was round one,” Ricketts said. “We felt after that, we should have something at graduation. Something respectful.”

Pence opposition was felt near campus hours before the vice president arrived in South Bend. A large sign that said “Welcome election conspirators” with the communist symbol of a hammer and sickle appeared just off State Road 23 early Saturday morning.

Notre Dame announced in March that it had invited Pence, who was raised Catholic, to speak at graduation instead of President Trump. Notre Dame has a strong tradition of inviting newly inaugurated presidents to speak at commencement and six have accepted: Dwight Eisenhower (1960), Jimmy Carter (1977), Ronald Reagan (1981), George H.W. Bush (1992), George W. Bush (2001), and Barack Obama (2009).

Pence, who served as Indiana’s governor for four years, is the first vice president to ever give a commencement address at Notre Dame. He also received an honorary degree. His mother, Nancy, was in attendance.

“It is fitting that in the 175th year of our founding on Indiana soil that Notre Dame recognize a native son who served our state and now the nation with quiet earnestness, moral conviction and a dedication to the common good characteristic of a true statesman,” university president Father John Jenkins said in a statement at the time Pence was announce as speaker.

Jenkins has been critical of Trump’s position on immigration. On Jan. 29, the school released a statement in which Jenkins urged Trump to rescind an executive order that banned entry to the United State of refugees, migrants and green-card holders from seven mostly Muslim countries.

As governor, Pence tried to block state agencies from helping Syrian refugees resettle in Indiana.

This wasn’t the first time a politician has faced protests at Notre Dame commencement.

In 2009, conservatives protested Obama’s graduation speech because they disapproved of his support of abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research.

There were also peaceful protests outside Pence’s commencement speech on Saturday afternoon at Grove City College near Pittsburgh, Pa.

This story will be updated