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Washington, D.C.’s two HBCUs sponsored graduation ceremonies were blocks apart on May 13, but their keynote speakers reflected the generations of political leadership in the country.
President Joseph Biden, 80, addressed a record 1,852 graduating class at Howard University’s commencement exercises at Capital One Arena in Northwest. Simultaneously, the University of the District of Columbia’s (UDC) 796 graduates heard from U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), the first member of Generation Z to serve in the U.S. Congress at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest.
The Howard ceremony was originally scheduled to take place on the campus but was changed due to concerns about inclement weather.
Both Biden and Frost received honorary doctorate degrees and talked about the importance of fighting white supremacy and urged African Americans and other people of color to get involved in the political process.
Biden Calls Howard ‘The Soul of the Nation‘
Biden sparked excitement among the graduates and their families when he recognized Howard’s legacy of excellence and called the historically Black university “the soul of the nation.”
His charge to graduates on Saturday was to follow in the footsteps of their fellow alumni to advance the cause of racial equity and tackle the issues that, several decades after Howard’s founding, continue to affect Black people’s quality of life in the United States.
“What is the soul of the nation? Biden asked rhetorically. “The essence of who we are. The soul makes us, us. The soul of America, which makes us unique among all nations. The only nation founded on an idea, not geography, religion, or ethnicity. The single prophecy in the Declaration of Independence that we’re all created equal. We never totally lived up to that promise but never walked away from it.”
Biden continued: “America hasn’t been a fairy tale. It’s been a constant push and pull for more than 240 years. It’s a battle that’s never really over. To stand up to white supremacy, the domestic terrorist threat to our homeland.”
Not all students embraced Biden’s message. As Biden spoke, some graduates stood up and turned their back to the president. Some of them held up signs that said, “Black people stand up, fight back.”
For many graduates, the road to the Howard commencement had its ebbs and flows. Just months into their freshman year, Howard’s Class of 2023 counted among those who quickly pivoted to virtual learning amid a pandemic that has killed over a million people. Throughout it all, they also witnessed a renaissance in which, amid a growing racial consciousness, HBCUs experienced record enrollment and increased federal government support.
In his opening remarks at the commencement, Howard University President Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick reflected on the university’s financial situation, this time acknowledging the Biden-Harris administration’s investments in HBCUs.
“President Biden has been instrumental in making these lofty goals a reality [with] investments, including for postsecondary education, including historically Black colleges and universities,” said Frederick, who is stepping down as president. “This is crucial to our future and Biden and his administration understand and are doing something about it.”
Other honorary doctorate recipients were U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Bruce A. Karsh and Marsha L. Karsh, founders of the Karsh Family Foundation, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Christopher Rowley, clinical investigator and health policy scholar Dr. Eugene Washington, and Benaree Pratt Wiley, a corporate director and trustee.
Severna Medor, a graduate of the College of Pharmacy, reflected on her journey as a student.
“Once I… saw students with the same desire to excel, I knew I was on the right path,” Medor said. “Coming to Howard University allowed me to find me. I found my voice and passion.”
Frost Tells UDC to Fight for What Is Right
In his keynote address, Frost said UDC graduates are beginning a new chapter in their lives, including President Ronald Mason, who is stepping down from his post.
“We are living in dangerous times and exciting times,” Frost, 26, said. “We are seeing a rise in fascism and white supremacy. But we are also seeing a rise in the power of young people. The reason we are seeing a rise in the right wing is the rise of Black people.”
Frost encouraged the graduates to look at public service as something worthy to pursue. Troubled by the gun violence plaguing the country in recent years, Frost initially rejected running for public office, as late as 2021, because he viewed politicians in a negative light.
“When you think of a politician, what do you think of,” asked Frost rhetorically. “You think of an old white guy that is corrupt. So did I when I decided to run for Congress in 2022. I lacked confidence. I didn’t see myself as a politician.”
Frost said he changed his mind with an intent on changing the nation’s gun laws and improving the lives of struggling Americans. He advised the graduates to do the same.
“When we are younger, we focus on who we want to be,” he said. “When you get older, you focus on what you want to do. I wanted to help people through music and politics. My message to you is to step into your power and if you make a mistake, give yourself grace.”
Frost said Generation Z is different from past age groups in that it supports economic inclusivity.
“Young people reject the notion that if I have something, you cannot have anything,” he said. “We embrace abundance. Everyone can have something.”
Salim Adofo, the Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commission chair for 8C and a 2024 candidate for the Democratic nomination for the D.C. Council, was one of the UDC graduates.
Adofo, 45, said Frost’s message should resonate with his classmates that ranged from age 73 to 19.
“Our class will have a lot to deal with in the world,” Adofo, who received a bachelor’s degree in political science, said. “Frost spoke about the issues young people will have to grapple with such as affordable housing and making diversity a serious pursuit. We have a lot of work to do.”