Tibetan Flag banned at UMass commencement: an interview with Kalsang Nangpa

By Lucy Martirosyan

Kalsang Nangpa is a first-generation college student majoring in public health who will be graduating from UMass this May. But as a Tibetan American, she has been denied by the university from carrying the Tibetan flag at commencement — as have other Tibetan American students in the past.

“I have had Tibetan friends in the past who have tried to carry the Tibetan flag during their commencement. They were all denied. And some of them didn’t even hear a response,” Nangpa said.

Nangpa called the UMass external affairs office several times with no response for almost four weeks. Finally she received an email that read that she wouldn’t be able to carry the Tibetan flag during graduation because Tibet is not recognized as a country by the US State Department.

“It’s sad and I’m frustrated and it’s kind of insulting. I feel like I’m being denied of my own identity. I’m very disappointed because I call UMass my second home. I’ve been here since my freshman year. So I’ve spent four years of my life here. I am very upset with UMass’ decision,” Nangpa said.

In a Facebook post that went viral among  UMass students in April, Nangpa wrote about the strained relationship between Tibet and China — a country that also doesn’t recognize Tibet as a country: “The Tibetan flag is banned in Tibet because of China’s current military occupation, brutal repression and censorship but I did not expect the same censorship and ignorance here in the US, especially at UMass. Thousands of Tibetans have fled Tibet to exercise their freedom and basic human rights, including my family. Despite the possible consequence of being jailed or killed, Tibetans in Tibet continue to fight for our country and identity by raising the Tibetan flag high. Therefore, I feel that it is my duty as a Tibetan to, at the very least, do the same and assert my identity in a free land.”

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Kalsang Nangpa in front of a UMass Students for a Free Tibet poster. Courtesy of Kalsang Nangpa.

This past weekend, Nangpa said that Nancy Buffone, the associate vice chancellor for university relations, responded to her emails on behalf of Chancellor Subbaswammy. Buffone essentially reiterated that it’s UMass policy to follow the list of countries recognized by the US State Department.

“According to [UMass’] mission statement, we’re supposed to be inclusive — we value inclusion, diversity, equity and all that. But this doesn’t reflect in their actions and in their decision. So I’m a little confused here. It’s a policy, but why can’t we change that policy if it’s plain wrong?” Nangpa said.

Back in 2013, an Iranian student was denied the same right to carry their country’s flag at commencement, Nangpa wrote in another Facebook post. “However, after receiving much backlash through emails and media attention, UMass did overturn the decision and the student was later granted the deserved opportunity to carry her flag during her graduation ceremony,” wrote Nangpa.

Similarly, Nangpa has been putting pressure on the administration to recognize the Tibetan flag during commencement. And she has asked the UMass community to do the same. Nangpa has been calling and emailing Buffone and even Senator Elizabeth Warren, who will be speaking at this year’s commencement.

Here are the emails and phone numbers:
Vice Chancellor Nancy Buffone:
(413) 577-1101
buffone@umass.edu

Senator Elizabeth Warren:
Washington DC: 202-224-4543
Boston: 617-565-3170
Springfield: 413-788-2690
email: https://www.warren.senate.gov/?p=email_senator

This is the template that Nangpa has been using:

Dear _______,

My name is [_______] and I am an [alum/student] at UMass Amherst. It has recently been brought to my attention that a graduating Tibetan student who had requested several times to carry her country’s flag at graduation was informed she would not be allowed to do so due to the current political controversy surrounding the autonomy of Chinese occupied Tibet. I am shocked and disappointed to learn that a university like UMass, which is known for its diversity and inclusion and is meant to be a welcoming place to all those who seek education no matter their background, has opted to exclude an entire country from their ceremony due to this political matter. I believe that any student, particularly one like Kalsang who is a devoted and active member of the UMass community, should have the right to participate in the ceremony, and proudly represent their people in doing so. I hope that the university will come to see that this decision is one which goes against the entire nature of the institution, and will overturn the decision as soon as possible.

Thank you for your time,