Taraji P. Henson receives an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Howard University, presented by the school’s president Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, before delivering the 2022 commencement address on May 7. (Courtesy of Howard University)
Taraji P. Henson receives an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Howard University, presented by the school’s president Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, before delivering the 2022 commencement address on May 7. (Courtesy of Howard University)

For award-winning actress-filmmaker-philanthropist-entrepreneur and Howard University alumna Taraji P. Henson, the road to an HU fine arts diploma, and eventual Hollywood stardom, included an attempt at electrical engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, her unexpected pregnancy and some uncertainty about how she would complete her studies. 

As she reflected on her success, Henson recognized Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen for the scholarship they made in their father’s name that paved the way for her 1995 graduation. She also thanked her late father Boris Henson who, along with legions of immediate and extended family, encouraged her to take on Hollywood with her then-toddler son Marcell Johnson and only $700 to her name. 

Decades later, Henson offered similar words of encouragement in her address to HU’s class of 2022. She not only touched on the importance of mental wellness and self-assurance, but analyzed how faith has taken people of various industries and backgrounds to insurmountable heights.  

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. It just means your faith is bigger than that fear,” Henson said on Saturday, May 7 in HU’s Burr Gymnasium. 

“Because fear is there to distract you. That’s its only purpose. It makes you waste time,” Henson added. “Fear makes you spin your wheels trying to figure out if you belong. Our faith is not static. Faith is whatever it means to you. It’s a moving powerful force if we take it out of the background and put it in the center of our lives.” 

On Saturday morning, HU conferred honorary doctorate of humane letters to Henson, historian and HU faculty member Dr. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, former board member Robert L. Lumpkins, HU alumnus and former trustee board chairman Stacey J. Mobley,  and Jonelle Procope, president and chief executive of Apollo Theater.  

Inclement weather compelled a last-minute venue change for HU’s 154th commencement. While organizers had hoped to host commencement activities on the Upper Quadrangle for the first time since 2019, graduates, faculty members, administrators, board members, and family members instead converged on Burr Gymnasium.

However, HU President Wayne A. I. Frederick, in his address to graduates, interpreted the rain as a sign of blessings for graduates who’ve endured bomb threats and a global pandemic all while completing classes, conducting service learning projects and establishing bonds with friends and faculty members who are renowned in their respective fields. Those who garnered Frederick’s kudos included Henson, award-winning actor Anthony Anderson who counted among the graduates, and two 2022 graduates who founded an on-campus research organization. 

In his statement to graduates, Frederick reflected on his experiences as an undergraduate who, upon his arrival from Trinidad & Tobago, simultaneously tackled coursework and sickle cell anemia to eventually achieve designation as a three-time HU alumnus. 

Those milestones, he said, bore a striking similarity to what people of various backgrounds and circumstances, ethnicity notwithstanding, have been able to accomplish at HU. 

“Your HU diploma should remind you of the confidence you carried with you at the Mecca. I expect all of you to do what has never been done before in the face of unprecedented times and challenges,” Frederick said. 

“It is my hope all of you will stop and take time to remember why you started doing this. No matter what degree you get, you have a responsibility to amplify the humanity of every person you come across.” 

HU’s 154th commencement brought together graduates who completed academic and financial requirements this spring, as well as by summer and December of 2021. Graduates hailed from HU School of Business, HU College of Medicine, College of Dentistry, College of Arts and Sciences, Chadwick A. Boseman School of Fine Arts, Cathy Hughes School of Communication, College of Engineering and Architecture, College of Nursing, and School of Law. 

As Kathleen Calaro, a graduate of HU College of Medicine noted on Saturday, the paths that graduates take will run the gamut. For those who haven’t quite determined their path moving forward, Calaro told her story of how her liberal arts postgraduate pursuits eventually led her to medicine. 

She credited HU’s rich cultural atmosphere with enriching her life, making her path much clearer and helping her see the beauty in not following convention. 

“This brings me back to my question [of] where do we go from here. Anywhere you want,” Calaro said.

“Live your life as if it were a compass and not a clock. Bring your best no matter what it looks like,” she added. 

“In seeing what makes a culturally rich and vibrant world, it’s the combined talents of the schools you’re graduating from today. Let us all proudly and unapologetically bring our talents, gifts, perspectives, experiences and voices. We are exactly what the world needs right now.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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