I love graduations! I thoroughly
enjoy the sense of achievement and possibility that permeates the
air. Graduations signify an ending, but the term "commencement"
is used to signify beginnings since they are not only an opportunity
to mark completion, but also to mark the beginning of a new chapter
of life. In some ways, commencements, regardless of the college or
university, with the pomp and circumstance, the ritual robes, the
rousing speeches, the tearful families. The two commencements I
attended during this graduation season shared those characteristics,
but in many ways, they could not have been more different.
attended the commencement at the University of the District of
Columbia because my dear friend and fearless leader, Rev. Jesse
Jackson received an honorary degree. Congresswoman Maxine Waters
also received an honorary degree and delivered the commencement
address. Nearly a month later, I attended the commencement ceremony
at Dartmouth College, where my beloved godson, Matthew Elijah Brown,
earned his undergraduate degree.
is located in bucolic Hanover, New Hampshire, miles away from
anything that resembles an urban space (Boston is more than 2 hours
away). Its student body is overwhelmingly white, with nonwhite
students (which includes African American, Latin, Asian American,
Native American, and others) representing less than 15 percent of the
population. The cost of attendance at Dartmouth exceeds $60,000.
UDC an urban, land-grant HBCU, has several campuses, including a
flagship campus in upper Northwest, DC and a community college not
too far from Union Station. Its student body is predominately
minority. Tuition at the flagship campus is a bit over $5000. Most
UDC students are part-time students; most Dartmouth students attend
full-time. The UDC student body is predominately female, while
Dartmouth didn't admit its first women to the college until 1973.
Congresswoman Waters was the commencement speaker at UDC, the cellist
Yo-Yo Ma was the commencement speaker at Dartmouth. I'm not sure
what my expectations were of the cellist, but he exceeded them! He
delivered provocative and challenging remarks in a still, soothing
voice, reminding students that they have a power that should never be
abused. He challenged students to be human beings before they are
professionals or careerists. Most interestingly, he urged stillness.
He said, "Learn to listen to the voice in the wilderness.
Learn to be the voice in the wilderness." What a message to
give a group of young people who will easily earn six figures upon
graduation, many headed to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the
venture capital world! If I didn't know any better, the gentle Yo-Yo
Ma could have been delivering a rebuke to the current inhabitant of
the House that Enslaved People Built and the many other conformists
who do not embrace the value of humanity. "Practice your
humanity daily," the cellist said. He offered solid and
stirring advice in an extremely graceless age. And then he played
Yo-Yo Ma didn't mention the name of the cretin in the House that
Enslaved People Built, Maxine Waters, calling for activism certainly
did. Like Yo-Yo Ma, she encouraged students to find their voices.
The fiery Congresswoman urged them to activism. She took on
hypocrisy in tones far more strident than Yo Yo Ma's, but she was
equally inspirational. And while Yo Yo Ma didn't tackle public
policy much, Waters did, focusing on the oppressive legislation that
has been characteristic of this administration.
similarity in the two commencement addresses lay in the call for
self-awareness, disruption, humanity, and focus. While many students
don't remember their commencement speaker, it is unlikely that
students at either UDC or Dartmouth will forget the speakers they
experienced. And while the students may are demographically
different, one can hope that the call to "practice humanity"
is one that will be heeded. It is, perhaps a sign of the times,
that graduates have to be urged to practice humanity, but so much of
our world is inhumane, placing profits over people, that the
admonition is appropriate.
are more than 4000 four-year colleges and universities in our nation.
The students graduating from Dartmouth and UDC represent a small
fraction of the total. The UDC students, many nontraditional, are
more likely to shoulder student debt than the Dartmouth students.
But both sets of students will face challenges, and both have the
responsibility, as Maxine Waters urged, to find a cause and tackle
it. And, in the words of Yo-Yo Ma, to "practice humanity."