A freshman at Wayne State University six years ago, Jasmyne Brantley watched from the wings as African American students on the cusp of graduation paraded through campus with families and friends in tow, beaming proudly and rejoicing collectively over hard-won academic achievements.
The university’s official Commencement was still weeks away — but for Brantley, this gathering was, in its own way, just as powerful.
It was her first time witnessing the Wayne State African American Graduation Celebration — the annual ceremony honoring black graduates that comes just ahead of the official university Commencement — and Brantley, then a first-year volunteer for the event, promised herself that it wouldn’t be her last.
“I remember seeing all of the graduates and tearing up thinking about how this could — and would — be me one day,” Brantley, who now serves as president of the Wayne State Black Student Union, recently recalled. “I developed a commitment to the community and knew that I would be a black woman with a degree.”
Consider both commitments nearly fulfilled. Once a helper at the event, Brantley will soon be an honoree.
On May 5, Brantley will join a host of other African and African American students from throughout the university, from undergrads to newly minted Ph.D.s, to take part in this year’s African American Graduation Celebration, marking the event’s 25th anniversary. (The celebration is open to any eligible student who wants to participate, irrespective of race or ethnicity.)
Each year, the graduates and their loved ones kick off the African-centered event with a strolling reception in the General Lectures building, eating, snapping photos and reveling in academic victories too often won in the face of steep societal challenges. Meanwhile, they’re serenaded by gospel singers and African drummers, with warm welcomes and kudos from university administrators and staff members. The graduates then line up and move into the building’s main auditorium for a keynote address.
This year, Dr. Theresa “Pepcee” Edwards, an alumnus of the Wayne State School of Social Work and manager of the Martha T. Berry Medical Care Facility in Mount Clemens, Michigan, will deliver the keynote.
As the 2018 celebration nears, some participating students recently reflected on the journeys that have brought them to this point.
“I started in 2012, so I’m excited for this chapter in my life to be over — although it has been a beautiful experience,” said Brantley, who is graduating with a bachelor’s in social work and will be pursuing her master’s this fall.
Charles Bell, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, will be among the students joining Brantley. Bell started at Wayne State in 2004, earning a bachelor’s in psychology in 2008. Ten years after his first Wayne State graduation, Bell will be honored for his achievements at the African American Graduation Celebration.
“I remember taking 18 credits for three semesters in a row during my undergrad, working two jobs and being under a lot of stress, so I didn’t attend the African American Graduation Celebration that year,” he said. “I am looking forward to seeing black excellence displayed at every corner of the room this time around and to challenging my brothers and sisters to go one step further in their pursuit of educational excellence.”
As a first-generation college graduate, Bell reminded himself to never give up on his education because he knew his family would reap the benefits of his hard work for years to come.
“Earning my Ph.D. this year has been a very profound experience,” said Bell, who begins a tenure track professorship in the Criminal Justice Sciences department at Illinois State University in the fall. “I tell myself that I defied every statistic because the odds were definitely stacked against me. However, at this point, it is important for me to inspire others, especially my daughters, to pursue advanced degrees.
“I remember sitting on my porch as a child and thinking it was not possible for me to earn a degree due to the circumstances I lived in. As of May 8, I will have three degrees and it is important for me to tell everyone that it is possible!”
University counselor Maxine Hudgins, who has coordinated the event for the past nine years, pointed out that stories like Bell’s underscore the need for the celebration. While some have mistakenly viewed the celebration as an alternative graduation event, Hudgins explained that the ceremony is a recognition of more than just graduates’ academic achievement. It’s also an acknowledgement of their perseverance.
“This celebration is not meant to take away from the university-wide Commencement ceremony but is instead an intimate cultural celebration for these impressive graduates and their families,” explained Hudgins. “It is so inspiring to see them all walk across the stage and be honored in this way.”