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Grads urged to 'think big, act boldly’

By Chris Levister

His midnight robe billowing out behind him, his mahogany face awash with pride Ashimadi Ladzekpo strode across the ceremonial stage bridging past and present with a ringing call to action.

“Together we are strong,” he said, his baritone voice booming like an evangelist’s. “Together we cannot be defeated, - Tyehimba,” he chanted , a Nigerian word that means “We are a Nation”....the jubilant crowd of some 1,800 family, friends, faculty, staff, and alumni rose to its feet roared, whistled, stumped and danced in surreal astonishment. UC Riverside’s annual Black Graduation is a kaleidoscope of bold colors, sounds and dreams as shining as the sun. It is a celebration of tradition and achievement - but perhaps more so this year. Amid lamentations about the dearth of blacks in higher education, UC Riverside graduated its largest class of African American men and women to date.

A record breaking 130 students took part in the 10th annual ceremony, which was first held in 1999 before going on hiatus until 2003. In addition to celebrating the students’ academic achievements, the event also commemorated African Student Programs’ 40th anniversary. “You have preserved in the face of many challenges and you have kept your focus to meet the goal you have set for yourself,” Chancellor Timothy P. While told the graduates. “The world that awaits you is far from perfect, but you have the skills and grace to overcome the hurdles you will encounter in the years ahead,” he said.

“Black Graduation is a celebration, an opportunity for students to personalize this milestone in their academic career,” said Ken Simons, director of African Student Programs at UCR, which sponsors the event. “It is a way that they can share their accomplishment with all the members who make up ‘their village’ in an intimate setting.”

UCR alumnus and keynote speaker Assemblymember Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) urged the graduates to think of life's "big picture" and to seek out opportunities that will challenge them to make a positive difference in the world.

Her address, exhorted the graduates to reflect on the people in their lives who have guided and supported them and to focus on the guidance received from those mentors. “Pay attention to that wisdom,” she said. “It helps make you who you are, and those words will be the words you remember and will guide you through your life's journey.” The daughter of two public service employees, Mitchell noted, her own words to live by were provided by her father, who told her to remember the big picture, and from her mother, who always encouraged her to seize the day.

“Who are the people and what are the words that have shaped you?” she asked UCR Black graduates. “How will you make the most of those words as you move forward into the next chapter of your life? Seek, embrace and follow your own words to live by and there is, indeed, no limit to what you will be able to accomplish.”

Mitchell, who represents the 47th Assembly District in Los Angeles, was elected in November 2010. She chairs the assembly’s Budget Sub-Committee on Health & Human Services, and is a member of the Committees on Accountability & Administrative Review, Appropriations, Budget, Health, and Public Safety. Attendees may have thought they were seeing double when Aizsa and Alyssa Anderson walked across the stage to receive their certificates of achievement, the grads happen to be identical twins. The sisters say the racially and ethnically themed ceremony is a way for minority students to celebrate their cultural connections as well as their ability to overcome the special challenges they face at predominantly white universities. “This is a milestone passed,” said Aizsa. “Students invite friends of all ethnicities. More schools need to do this, don’t shy away from finding wonderful ways to acknowledge students of color. There is still a challenge of being black at a predominantly white institution, and struggling to feel connected. We have significantly contributed to bettering our community, and we have to celebrate that.”

“I think it’s a great tradition,” said Alyssa. “It’s important for all members of our campus and community to see history through the lens of Black people and learn about the many contributions they have made throughout history.” The two sisters plan to attend graduate school in San Diego this fall.

“Black Graduation is not an ‘alternative’ ceremony in that students who participate are encouraged to experience the pageantry of commencement by participating in the regular ceremonies as well,” Simons said.

“One advantage for graduates and their families is that with our large venue and smaller number of graduates, there is no limit to the number of guests each student can invite. We understand that teachers, coaches, mentors, preachers, faculty, staff, alumni, relatives and community members all have played a vital role in the success of these young scholars and we are happy to be able to provide a place for them to celebrate together.” A pair of UCR student groups, The God’s Revelation Gospel Choir and the Nigerian Student Association Dance group, performed. The program also featured the presentation of three annual awards.

The James Wesley Vines Medical Society Award was presented to Political Science/International Affairs major Nella Juma as the outstanding graduating senior active in mentorship and improving educational opportunities for African-American students seeking careers in the medical and health science fields.

The Nathan Alex Irvin Award, was presented to Political Science major Kevin A. Fashola by African Student Programs. The award recognizes a graduating senior who possesses outstanding character, scholastic achievement, and leadership qualities with an emphasis on uplifting Black communities, both on- and off-campus. The Zeanissia Moore Award, presented to an African/African-American woman who has overcome many challenges during her undergraduate career was presented to Angela Williams.

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