Melania Trump receives university's 'Woman of Distinction' award amid pushback from students

First lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpMelania Trump urges Americans to wear face coverings in public Trump again tests negative for coronavirus Melania Trump speaks with Canada's first lady following her coronavirus recovery MORE on Wednesday received a “Woman of Distinction” award from Palm Beach Atlantic University (PBA), despite pushback from some students and alumni in Florida over the move.

Melania Trump, who changed her primary residence to Palm Beach along with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE last year, said she was "grateful" to accept the award. According to the school’s website, the award is given to women “who cherish community and family and want to preserve these ideals for others.”

“As the first lady of the United States, it is a great honor to serve the people of this incredible country,” she said at the university's annual Women of Distinction luncheon at The Breakers Hotel, where she accepted the award.

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Trump went on to discuss her Be Best initiative, a campaign she launched two years ago that aims to tackle issues pertaining to children, like cyber bullying and opioid abuse.

“When we teach our children to cherish our values and care for each other, they are better prepared to carry on Americans’ legacy of compassion, service and patriotism,” she said, adding it is “our duty as adults and parents” to ensure children have the best opportunities to lead fulfilling lives.

A spokeswoman for the school told The Hill last month that this year marked the first time the committee tasked with selecting honorees chose a first lady for the Woman of Distinction recognition since the university began the event in 1991. Proceeds from the event, which was sold out, will go toward a scholarship fund for female students.

In announcing the recognition, the school said its “emphasis on encouraging the potential of each person aligns with Mrs. Trump’s platform as First Lady.”

Still, the move sparked pushback from some students and alumni who noted that the award is typically given to two women each year who have been involved in charitable efforts in the local community.

"This award has historically gone to women whose character and impact in Palm Beach has shaped the culture of our home, and I have not been convinced that the first lady's character or impact here is worthy of that recognition," said Graysen Boehning, a senior studying biology and zoology at the school.

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Boehning told The Hill he went to school officials to voice his concerns shortly after the announcement last month. He said multiple students and “some faculty and staff discussed their opinions openly in the days following the announcement, and those opinions seemed relatively split.”

“While many students were excited that the school was bringing in the first lady of the United States to speak, others felt that her character was not representative of the community of love for people of all backgrounds and beliefs that PBA houses and fosters,” he said.

Tyler Whitehead, president of the school’s College Democrats group, said that members of the student organization “were displeased and confused" by the decision to give Trump the award.

“The vast majority of students and faculty that I have spoken to about the decision were disappointed by what seems to be a politically-motivated move on the university's part,” Whitehead said in a statement.

Austin Gergen, the vice president of the school’s College Republicans group, said there are likely "quite a few" who backed the move, though he hasn't met them himself.

“I've talked to other students who believe this will tank their chances at graduate school, and I definitely think they're overreacting, but I understand their concern. Overall, I think this was most likely a donor-oriented decision rather than a moral one,” he said.

Bill Fleming, the president of the university, told The Palm Beach Post that he “enthusiastically” accepted the committee’s recommendation for the first lady to receive this year’s award, calling it "the honorable thing to do." He also said the decision to honor the first lady was “not a political statement on the part of the university.”

The school did not return requests for comment from The Hill about the process of selecting honorees for the award or information about the selection committee.

“From my understanding of the award, it is for the person in West Palm Beach who has made an outstanding impact. I assume the university is doing this to stand in solidarity with the Trump family at a time where doing so is politically unpalatable,” said Gergen.

“I don't think that Melania Trump was the most outstanding woman in the Palm Beach area, but that being said, I don't mind the move,” he added.

Some in the alumni community said they were taken aback by the school's decision.

Scott Hampson, who graduated from the private Christian university in 2013, said his initial reaction was a “healthy eye roll” when the move was announced.

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“I wish I could say that I was surprised,” he continued. But Hampson said he wasn’t shocked by the move, noting other political figures who have been given a platform by the school, including then-former GOP presidential candidate Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonKristol-backed group releases ad showing GOP voters blasting Trump over coronavirus response White House slams pastor leading Cabinet Bible studies for linking homosexuality, coronavirus Conservative group hits Trump for coronavirus response in new ad MORE who spoke at its commencement in 2016.

Hampson said he had hoped his alma mater would try to “move away from the marriage of the kind of religious right with right wing politics and not take that stance as hard” as other Christian schools like Liberty University.

Liberty, which is based in Lynchburg, Va., has drawn scrutiny in recent years over President Trump's relationship with the school's president, Jerry Falwell Jr.

Hampson said he discussed with friends how their former school “was trying to walk the line” and “hold the middle without trying to take much [of] a stance in this direction with this kind of implied, ‘Hey, at least we’re not Liberty.’” 

However, Hampson said he thinks that stance “really starts to fall to the wayside” when the school starts “doing things like this.”

Another PBA graduate who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Hill that the school's decision to honor the first lady "shook" him.

“It definitely made me take a pause with how much I affiliate myself with the university, just because, I would never want to be known to have gone to a school like Liberty or anything like that,” he said.

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The former student pointed to the first lady’s anti-bullying initiative, calling it “laughable” since “she’s married to one of the biggest cyber bullies in our country.”

Melania Trump maintained in her speech Wednesday that her Be Best initiative “has been shining a light of progress across the country and overseas” to young people to “understand what it means to be best.”

“Technology,” Trump said, “has become a daily part of our children’s lives in both positive and negative ways. We live in an age where too many people allow the number of retweets or likes to define their self worth.”

“I’m convinced, now more than ever, that teaching healthy online behavior is crucial to securing a safer future for our children,” she said.