Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service is full of students likely to become influential in international affairs in years to come and its commencement often brings in big names. In recent years, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have taken the podium.
With the ongoing war in Ukraine and Wall Street Journalist Evan Gershkovich’s recent imprisonment in Russia, Navalnaya — a 22-year-old junior psychology major at Stanford — seemed to the school to be a fitting choice to underscore free speech while pushing back against the Kremlin’s behavior.
That’s not how a number of Ukrainian and Georgian students saw it.
Ukrainian student Iryna Tiasko, an undergraduate senior, said she hopes to serve in Ukraine’s parliament one day, and being pictured with a Russian political figure, pro-war or not, could be detrimental to her future.
“Last year, they shook Blinken’s hand, who was giving the speech. Am I supposed to shake her hand?” Tiasko said. “Like, I’m not going to, even if I have to.”
Students have written a series of scathing letters, and hundreds of students, faculty and alumni have signed a petition protesting the choice.
Following the backlash, Georgetown shifted gears to take the spotlight off Navalnaya alone.
The school has added two new speakers to include several perspectives: Debra Tice, the mother of imprisoned journalist Austin Tice, and Evan Mawarire, a Zimbabwean pastor who has challenged corruption, injustice and poverty, according to the school. This week it also bought about 200 Ukrainian flags that students plan to use during a peaceful demonstration at the ceremony, according to students and a school official.
But the school says it never considered dropping Dasha from the program.
“We do not disinvite speakers on the Georgetown campus, and we don’t dissuade speakers from speaking,” said Joel Hellman, dean of SFS. “We do communicate to speakers when concerns are raised among students, so they can take those into account.”
Dasha and the other speakers won’t be shaking any students’ hands, SFS spokesperson Marie Harf said, but she’ll sit front row on stage alongside the two other speakers. She and the other speakers also won’t receive an honorary degree, as those in the past have.
Dasha Navalnaya’s response team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The uproar began on May 3, the day Georgetown announced its lineup of speakers. When Ruslana Kochmar, a Ukrainian masters student finishing up her final year, heard Navalnaya was going to deliver the speech, “I honestly thought that it was just a very bad joke,” she said. Since then, she has organized students against the decision.
In a May 5 letter to students, which POLITICO obtained, Hellman wrote: “I understand that some of the individuals whose stories will be highlighted have made past statements that are deeply problematic,” adding that the university doesn’t condone Navalny’s past comments. But he insisted that Dasha’s speech would go on.
The students continued to urge university officials to reconsider their choice in a May 9 letter signed by six student senators, who each represent a school of study in student government at Georgetown.
The student campaigners say the new speakers don’t make up for having Dasha at the podium. When she takes the stage, many graduates intend to stand, some with their backs facing the stage, in a peaceful act of protest, along with holding the Ukrainian flags provided by the school.
Not all students believe Dasha’s appearance is such a bad thing. In comments on a post on the school’s Instagram account announcing the speakers, a handful of people defended Dasha against others that bashed the school for being “tone deaf.” One user asked if the speech would be recorded.
The end of the spring semester is usually a time for Georgetown students to focus on finals and end-of-year celebrations. This year, Kochmar said, “It’s been such chaos and a mess.”
A version of this story previously appeared in POLITICO’S National Security Daily newsletter.