Law & health sciences graduates celebrate heritage in kente ceremony

Students in the Class of 2023 who recognize an African ancestry gathered the day before Commencement for family and friends to share pride in their achievements.

“Plant your feet on something solid.”

La’Tonya Wiley ’97, Elon University’s assistant director of alumni engagement, has found inspiration over the years from a gift she received from a sorority sister while a college student.

“Hinds’ Feet on High Places,” a story by English author Hannah Hurnard, tells the tale of Much-Afraid and a transformational mountain journey undertaken to escape a life based on fear, sorrow, and suffering with guidance from a chief shepherd.

La’Tonya Wiley ’97

It was this story that came to mind when Wiley was asked to deliver keynote remarks on Dec. 7, 2023, in a Donning of the Kente ceremony for Black students preparing to graduate the next day from Elon University’s School of Law and School of Health Sciences programs.

“I hope that you will find yourself in this story because I believe that every last one of you was there,” Wiley told the crowded Lakeside Meeting Rooms on Elon’s main campus. “When you started your respective programs, you came in very much afraid. And you stumbled through your projects, you stumbled through your homework and assignments, not knowing where to place your feet.

“You weren’t sturdy. But as you continued on, you found sure footing, because the chief shepherds here guided you. And they never left you alone,” she said.

Graduates who have earned their degrees now have a solid foundation on which to “plant your feet and launch and go higher,” Wiley said, and their names have likewise been figuratively changed like what happened for Much-Afraid at the end of the story.

“Today, you are no longer Much-Afraid,” she concluded. “You leave today with your names changed from Much-Afraid to ‘Attorney,’ and ‘Doctor’ and ‘Nurse.’ What I need you to know is that you can find joy and peace in the midst of your storms. Remember, trauma doesn’t last always. Trials come to make you strong. Trouble comes to prove who we are. So find your peace in the storm.”

Elliott Millner L’23

The ceremony’s two dozen participants received a stole made of kente cloth imported from West Africa. During the program, faculty read aloud remarks submitted by a family member or mentor of each graduate, each of whom stood on a stage before their classmates and guests. At the conclusion of each passage, graduates were donned with a stole to be worn the next day at Commencement.

The kente cloth symbolizes and celebrates prestige in many African societies. Its origin dates to 12th Century Ghana where the cloth was worn by kings, queens and important figures of state in Ghanaian society, during ceremonial events and special occasions. In a cultural context, it is a visual representation of African history, philosophy, ethics, oral literature, moral values, social code of conduct, religious beliefs, political thought and aesthetic principles.

“We look forward to this being a positive and memorable experience to reward our graduates and their loved ones with a personal and culturally relevant ceremony at a significant moment in their family’s history,” said School of Health Sciences Dean Maha Lund in her welcoming remarks.  “And we acknowledge and thank the many members of the Elon community who have offered guidance and support to our graduates throughout their journey.”

Jasmine Turner L’23 is warmly embraced shortly after being donned with a kente stole.

The program was organized by Laké Laosebikan-Buggs, Elon University’s director of inclusive excellence for graduate and professional education, with assistance and contributions from faculty and staff in the School of Law, the School of Health Sciences and the Division of Inclusive Excellence.

In closing the kente ceremony, Elon Law Dean Zak Kramer reminded graduates about the importance and impact of their education in professions that serve humanity through healing and advocacy.

“It’s a wonderful thing that these two colleges have come together at this moment in these graduates’ lives to launch them into the careers of their dreams,” Kramer said. “We have done our part, family and friends, to help them realize their dreams, but the lesson of this event for me is that we’re also helping them realize your dreams.

“To graduates: Thank you for sharing your stories and for letting us be a part of your journey. You are going into professions where you matter. Your representations matter. Your stories matter. I encourage you to spend a couple of days celebrating. Then you have work to do.

“And when you go do it, my sincere hope is that we will find another opportunity to bring you back to Elon and hear about all of the people you’ve helped and how you have helped repair our world.”

Students in the Class of 2023 from the School of Law and School of Health Sciences who were celebrated on December 7, 2023, during a Donning of the Kente ceremony in Elon University’s Lakeside Meeting Rooms.