Withelma T. Ortiz Walker Pettigrew is a 2019 Morgan State University graduate. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Informer)
Withelma T. Ortiz Walker Pettigrew is a 2019 Morgan State University graduate. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Informer)

There was the Iraqi War veteran who became addicted to opioids after he lost his arm.

There was a 65-year-old man who started college in 1974 but was sidetracked by a prison bid.

And then there was Withelma T. Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, who was a victim of human trafficking as a child.

But hopes and dreams became joyful realities Saturday for these three and roughly 800 other students at Morgan State University during the 2019 commencement witnessed by thousands of family members and friends who filled the university’s football stadium on the Baltimore campus.

Founded in 1867, Morgan has graduated more than 50,000 degree candidates in its 150-year history. Joining lines of students dressed in royal blue cap and gowns were members of the Morgan State Class of 1969, who collectively donated $1.4 million to the school in honor of their 50th anniversary.

In year filled with police scandals, the resignation of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and even the deaths of two members of the class of 2018, Morgan State President David Wilson and just about everyone in the stadium savored every minute of a graduation ceremony that felt more like a revival.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who chairs the House of Representatives committee overseeing several investigations of President Trump, served as the commencement speaker for the May 18 event.

“Never forget the bridge that brought you over,” Cummings told the graduates as he reflected on his life of growing up in row house in southwest Baltimore.

He recounted being placed in special education and being told by a counselor, “You will never become a lawyer. … Who do you think that you are?”

But Cummings said that he went from Baltimore down to Howard University in D.C., where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

“I thought it was fraternity, I didn’t know it was an academic honor,” he quipped. “After I became a lawyer, one of my first clients was that counselor.”

Following the ceremony, a number of students were invited to the president’s luncheon, where one of the honorees was Penelope Blackwell, a District resident and McKinley Tech alumna who overcame serious injury suffered in a car crash to graduate with top honors from both Columbia University and the University of Maryland.

Pettigrew, who attended the luncheon, said she persevered despite the many times that she didn’t think she was going to make it. She shared a message on social media to anyone who might think she is a failure.

“Failures don’t make the Dean’s list 3x…Failures don’t graduate with honors..Failures don’t get to do what I do,” she tweeted.

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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