On a picture-perfect morning, replete with sunshine and blue skies, Howard University illustrated why it has long been considered one of the nation’s leading universities, race notwithstanding, awarding 2,293 degrees during the 151st Commencement Convocation, Saturday, May 11.
Included in the number of degrees conferred: 309 master’s degrees, 114 Ph.D.’s and 40 certificates. Howard University President, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick proudly noted that among this year’s graduates, women comprised 67 percent of those earning their degrees. But he also reminded the audience about the important legacy that this year’s graduates will take out into the world.
“We can celebrate today because of the contributions made by the Howard University family in the areas of justice, equality and the transformative power of education,” he said.
“Our graduates today become part of a worldwide group of alumnus who have undertaken roles as servants, leaders and seekers. And while America has yet to embrace Blacks as equal citizens, we cannot be distracted or disheartened. We must be sure to keep our focus on the bigger picture.”
“Twenty-five years ago, I graduated from the Howard University School of Medicine. Here, I was encouraged to excel. No one ever disputed by abilities. Here, I was met with unbridled optimism and encouragement. This is the HBCU difference.”
Renee Whiteley gave the student’s welcome, sharing her perspective as a young woman who left her native Jamaica in order to secure a quality, college education.
“When I came here from Kingston in 2014, I knew nothing about HBCUs or the differences felt by African Americans in their own country,” she said. “The tags Blacks use and the nuances of race were all foreign to me. In my country, everyone and everything is Black. But in my journey to become an architect in a country where only 2 percent of the nation’s registered architects are Black, I was provided with the best education possible. This place has been special to me. And it’s prepared to go out and serve my community and our people.”
Keynote speaker for the day, the Honorable Kasim Reed, former mayor of Atlanta and a graduate of Howard’s Law School, said emphatically, “there’s no place like home.”
“Returning to Howard always feels like coming home to me,” he said. “No source, with the exception of my family and my faith, has played a more important role in any success that I have had in my career than Howard University,” Reed said, who reminded those in attendance that he’d earned his Bachelor of Arts, Juris Doctor and an honorary Doctor of Laws from Howard University.
“Howard is a dream factory. But we don’t do enough to call the role. When I was here, I had classmates like Taraji P. Henson hanging out on the yard with her small child. I had Puffy winning dance contests in front of the Blackburn Center. I would look at Founders Library and remember stories about how when it was being built, Booker T. Washington, a trustee of the University, pointed out that there were no Blacks among the construction workers. He said it ‘set a bad example’ for students. Those were the kinds of men and women who provided the basis of excellence and established our legacy and our traditions. And I share my gifts toward the continuing of that legacy and those traditions.”
“When you come to Howard, you should come with a lesson plan. But that lesson plan, as you learn, study and grow, becomes your dream plan. And I have been blessed to realize so many of my dreams because of the preparation, guidance and supports I received and continue to receive from the Howard University faculty, staff, students — the HU family,” he added.
Reed pointed to the many buildings on the campus, all named for iconic leaders in African-American history. Each building had a personal story, a memory, that he said he’ll never forget.
One highlight of the convocation would be the conferring of honorary degrees including: Frank J. Bisignano, chairman and CEO, First Data; Dr. Norman C. Francis, Xavier University’s President Emeritus; Dr. Jeanne Craig Sinkford, former dean, Howard University College of Dentistry and a trailblazer in dental education; Dr. Michael R. Winston, a nationally-recognized historian and educator; and Reed, an attorney and politician who served two terms as the 59th mayor of the city of Atlanta. Each shared vignettes about why Howard University remains such a special place to them.
But one story shared by Reed spoke volumes about the importance of friendship — friendships he forged while matriculating at Howard University.
“During my first campaign for mayor of Atlanta, things weren’t going well,” he said. “Money was tight and the polls didn’t favor my winning. I was in a hotel room in Chicago on my birthday and all alone. I was down. I was discouraged. I was depressed. Then my phone rang. It was Andy Young.”
“He told he I had been on his mind and he wanted to make sure I was doing fine. He said, ‘if you’re awake, then I’m awake. If you’re not OK, then I’m not OK.’ He had my back. That was the encouragement I needed to take the reins again in my campaign and push forward to victory. That’s what I’ve received because of my years at Howard University.”
“I’ll say it over and over: there’s no place like home.”
Editor’s Note: The Washington Informer extend our heartfelt congratulations to two of the new graduates from Howard University: Alexa Imani Spencer and Noni Marshall. Both young women previously served under my direction as summer interns and have continued to write for The Informer. They have prepared themselves for careers in journalism but have the skills to tackle any career of their choosing. We await their continued stories of excellence and achievement.