Otto Warmbier's absence noticeably felt at Final Exercises

Students pass out '#FreeOtto' stickers at graduation ceremonies, speakers reference student detained in North Korea

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Graduates wearing the "#FreeOtto" stickers that were passed out. 

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

Over a year after University student Otto Warmbier was detained in North Korea and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly attempting to steal a political banner, his absence was notable at Final Exercises this weekend.

Nearly 1,000 “#FreeOtto” stickers were passed out by his peers, and many were seen decorating graduation caps and gowns as the Class of 2017 walked down the Lawn at Final Exercises on Saturday and Sunday.

“There is most definitely someone missing” College graduate Zach Gelfand said. “We know that Otto is not here, and we think about him constantly.”

Warmbier’s parents along with the parents of his girlfriend at the time of his detainment organized the “#FreeOtto” sticker campaign and gave them to his friends to distribute among the graduating students this weekend. Warmbier’s parents did not attend the commencement ceremonies.

During his trial, Warmbier confessed to stealing a political banner, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s highest court sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor for subversion. (Photo courtesy Reuters / Kyodo.) 

According to Ned Ende, a College graduate, the campaign was successful.

“We were pretty pumped at the reception they got, and there were plenty of people both yesterday and today that were wearing the stickers,” Ende said. “We’re really proud of that.”

The stickers were worn not only by Warmbier’s close friends, but also by hundreds of his classmates from the Class of 2017.

“One of the most special things about the stickers has been walking around Grounds and seeing people I’ve never met wearing them sincerely — not just to be part of the sticker craze, but because people actually believe in this cause,” College graduate Sanjana Sekhar said. “I think that’s just really encouraging to see that it is working the way that we were hoping it would in keeping it top of mind.”

University President Teresa Sullivan noted Warmbier’s absence at Sunday’s Final Exercises ceremony where students in the McIntire School of Commerce graduated. Warmbier was a third-year Commerce student at the time of his detainment in North Korea and planned to pursue a career in investment banking.

“Otto Warmbier, a fourth-year student in the McIntire School of Commerce, has been imprisoned in North Korea for nearly 17 months,” Sullivan said at Sunday’s Final Exercises. “During this time, he has not been permitted to communicate with his family or with any representative of the U.S. government. We will continue to hold Otto and his family in our thoughts and prayers and I know those of you who were his classmates miss his presence.”

Commerce Dean Carl Zeithaml also directly mentioned Warmbier during the Commerce diploma ceremony, urging his classmates and those in attendance to remember him.

“Otto is in our thoughts and prayers on this occasion and we look forward to the day when he is back with us at the University,” Zeithaml said.

The U.S. State Department has called for Warmbier’s release, although Warmbier’s parents have expressed dissatisfaction with the slow process of securing their son’s release.

Government officials have encouraged the family to remain quiet about the case, but Fred and Cindy Warmbier have spoken out about their son’s situation in recent months, granting numerous interviews to the press.

In one appearance on Fox News, for example, the Warmbiers criticized the State Department and said they felt blamed for their son’s detainment.

In another interview with The Washington Post, Fred Warmbier said their son was an “unwanted distraction” to the Obama administration, which had “urged us to keep quiet.”

“Now the new administration is there, so we’ve decided to start speaking out,” he told the Post.

“Now that we’re allowed to be vocal about it, what I’m hoping is that we all just start to do that and fight to get him back,” Sekhar said. “I think that’s kind of the turning point that we’ve reached, where we’re all able to join that fight, so I hope that everyone does.”

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