Pursuit Humiliated Students At My Graduation Ceremony
It was cruel and didn’t need to happen.
I’m going to be blunt. Pursuit humiliated students at the graduation ceremony for the 4.0 class. They forced students to accept prop certificates of completion. This was in addition to placing asterisks next to these students’ names in the program and noting these students were “in process of completing all graduation requirements.” Students were informed about the asterisks ahead of time, but they were not told about the prop certificates. Graduation was traumatizing. I talked about this briefly on Twitter, but it’s an incident that deserves a closer look.
From far away, you couldn’t tell there were prop certificates. The props had the same “Upward & Onward” heading that the real certificates had. The heading took up half of the paper. On closer inspection, you could see that’s all that was written on the props. The real certificates included the student’s name, their course, a note of congratulations, the graduation date, and signatures of the CEO and Managing Director.
At the ceremony, we students were instructed to shake the CEO and Co-founder Jukay Hsu’s hand, take a picture with him, and shake the hands of the other staff. We were never told in advance that there were two versions of the certificates. In fact, we students didn’t even know we were receiving any certificate. Weeks earlier we had asked Pursuit if we would receive any proof we finished the program, like a letter or something nice to put on our walls. We were met with bewildered stares.
For the first student to receive a prop certificate, the other students didn’t know what was going on. After she received the prop and shook Jukay’s hand, she silently walked off the stage and back to her seat in the front row. The happiness had left her face and now she had a blank stare. She didn’t bother to go through the motions of shaking the hands of the other staff members on stage. After a brief and awkward silence, one of the instructors on stage ran up to the student and said something no one else could hear. I imagine they were words of comfort. The ceremony continued.
Me and others were confused about what had happened. We learned what was going on when a classmate sent us a group message. Pursuit had given him a blank certificate. “Blank” was this student’s wording and I don’t think it’s inappropriate. He was very insulted by this and had to leave the ceremony for a little bit before deciding to return and hang out during the after party. When we watched closer, we could see the staff had to make sure the prop certificates never faced the photographer’s camera when they handed it over to the student. We were all disgusted.
What happened was not okay. Students had their families there. Can you imagine having to explain to your mom, your dad, your child, or your partner why you were at this graduation ceremony and you had to accept a prop certificate? For example, can you imagine telling your loved ones this all happened because you didn’t get a 100% on a cover letter? I knew a classmate whose certificate was withheld because of a cover letter. It was ridiculous because this student had been offered a job and Pursuit was playing a power game by saying this student wasn’t job-ready. I have never seen a school (pre-kindergarten through graduate school) pull a stunt like this.
This stunt affected many students. There were 113 students listed on the graduation program. (The program had started with 144 students.) Forty-eight students had asterisks next to their names and were handed prop certificates. That’s 42% of the graduating class.¹ It’s pretty clear why Pursuit included “on track” students in the ceremonies. If they didn’t, they would have a pretty empty auditorium and lots of whitespace on the program’s graduate list.
There were better ways to be inclusive and not humiliate anyone. Pursuit could have given out the classic rolled-up diploma tied up with a ribbon and asked students to pick up the real certificates after the ceremony. Pursuit could have placed the certificates in presentation folders that you had to open if you wanted to see the contents instead of putting the documents in cheap frames because they thought frames were a nicer touch.
Pursuit committed these gross actions because they knew they could get away with it. Their program targeted the most vulnerable groups: women, immigrants, Hispanics, Blacks, and those without college degrees. They knew the students would not cause a scene at graduation or on Twitter because the students couldn’t afford to. The students would look like uppity women. The students would look like angry Black men or angry Black women. The students would look like lazy Hispanics who didn’t want to follow the rules and graduate the right way. The students would look ungrateful because Pursuit is a non-profit with “good intentions.”
It’s still very confusing to me why Pursuit went through all this trouble to have prop certificates and “real” certificates. I put “real” in quotes because these certificates were just pieces of paper Pursuit had printed out that said a student had finished the program. These were not certificates issued by a higher authority, such as the NY State Education Department. I would argue even the “real” certificates were just props.
After seeing many of my classmates humiliated, I didn’t feel proud to have finished the Pursuit program. I wondered if any of it had been worth it.
 For a breakdown of the 4.0 graduating class, see my post “How many students successfully complete the Pursuit program?,” https://medium.com/my-experience-with-pursuit/how-many-students-successfully-complete-the-pursuit-program-be613e411.