Fifty-six members of the Class of 2021 were honored May 20 during the cultural ceremony that celebrates the achievements of students who recognize their African heritage.
Led by a group of drummers clad in African attire, 56 members of the Class of 2021 entered Alumni Gym Thursday night while their loved ones and mentors cheered them on and dancers took center stage. They were there to celebrate the pride, heritage and culture of their African ancestors as part of the Donning of the Kente Ceremony.
During the cultural celebration, which is sponsored by the Office of Alumni Engagement, the Elon Black Alumni Network and the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education, each senior received a handwoven stole of kente cloth made especially for them in a Ghanaian village. The cloth, which symbolizes and celebrates prestige in many African societies, is also a visual representation of African history, moral values and principles.
“The donning is meant to be a positive and memorable experience that rewards students and their families with a personal and culturally relevant ceremony,” said Randy Williams, Elon’s vice president and associate provost for inclusive excellence, during his opening remarks. “I assure you that students will be celebrated this evening, and we shall cheer loudly, right?”
And so they were. They were praised for their resiliency during their four years at Elon, encouraged to reach further and follow their dreams, and asked to embrace the promise of a future full of opportunities. But above all, they were reminded of the relentless support and love of the members of their village who will continue cheering them on every step of the way.
Besides receiving the kente cloth, students received a pin to signify their transition as alumni. “On behalf of over 2,000 black alumni, we welcome you into the Elon Black Alumni Network and look forward to being home-base to each of you for years to come,” said the network’s president, Akilah Weaver ’00. “EBAN is a place where you can feel safe, affirmed, validated and at home.”
Kennedy Ojimadu ’17, a customer success account manager at Microsoft who was a part of the committee that put together the inaugural Donning of the Kente Ceremony in 2017, served as the keynote speaker. He recalled the dream team of faculty and staff who made that first event possible, which included Buffie Longmire-Avital from the psychology department, Cherrel Miller Dyce from the CREDE and Deidra Smith from alumni engagement office. “To say that it was a success would be an understatement,” he said. “It became and Elon tradition, and truthfully, it was one of my biggest accomplishments from undergrad.”
Having had four years to think about life after graduation, Ojimadu wanted to leave the graduates with practical advice. Echoing the words from President Emeritus Leo M. Lambert, who delivered the class’ First Year Convocation speech, Ojimadu encouraged the students to be intentional. “I just encourage you all to be intentional about your passions, your health and your relationships. Being intentional is in fact trying,” he said. “And if you’re going to try, go all the way.”
In closing the event, Longmire-Avital started singing Louis Armstrong’s “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” before asking the graduates: How do we find joy after a year of so much loss? For nearly 18 months, she said, we have witnessed a pandemic that has not only devastated the world and taken the lives of many, but it has also exposed and amplified the inequities between nations, communities and people.
“In the past 18 months, we valiantly fought against the overwhelming urge to close our eyes and block out the assaulting images of unarmed Black people being killed yet again by gunshots,” Longmire-Avital said. “In the last 18 months, the Black diaspora and its allies donned their masks and took to the streets to bring about what [John] Lewis referred to as that ‘good trouble.’
“… To be Black in America especially in these past 18 months has been a grueling test of endurance and compartmentalization, of perseverance through fear and despair. This year and a half could have broken us, should have broken us. But you are still here. We are still here. You have made it.”
She reminded the graduates that besides their families, there are many reasons why they have endured their journeys thus far, and that the Elon community will hold them as they face the challenges ahead. “In just a few short hours you will become official graduates of Elon University,” Longmire-Avital said, “and despite what might appear to be the end of an era for you, it is my hope and belief that is merely the beginning of an embrace that will sustain you for the many decades to come.”
Whatever the past 18 months brought — struggles, loses, gains — they endured in the collective strength of their Elon community, she said. “In this last 18-month-long year, where you have undoubtedly embodied the resilience of a Phoenix that must rise from the ashes of loss, look back as you soar high and remember this: Somebody knows the trouble you see. Somebody knows your sorrows.
“Elon graduates of 2021, remember your joy is all around you. Congratulations, and long live your Elon village.”
Valerie Stewart Rugbart