Graduating from Harvard University is a huge accomplishment for any student, and the commemoration of that event should be something that will be remembered for a lifetime. For black graduate students in 2017, that memory will come in the form of an individual ceremony, the first such ceremony in recent history.
The event, which took nearly a year to plan and is scheduled for the morning of May 23, is an effort to acknowledge the struggles and resilience that black students have had to possess in order to thrive in higher education, an environment where minorities are typically underrepresented.
“This is an opportunity to celebrate Harvard’s black excellence and black brilliance,” Michael Huggins, who is graduating with a master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, said. “It’s an event where we can see each other and our parents and family can see us as a collective, whole group. A community.
“This is not about segregation,” Huggins added. “It’s about fellowship and building a community. This is a chance to reaffirm for each other that we enter the work world with a network of supporters standing with us. We are all partners.”
The ceremony, which will focus on graduate students, comes at a time when the experiences of many black students, undergraduate and grad, on college campuses in America have been marked by incidents of overt racism, microaggressions, passive racist comments, and the marginalization of minority experiences in both reading assignments and learning materials.
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The college graduation rate for black students in the country was 44 percent in 2011, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. The same report showed that at Harvard, 96 percent of black undergraduate students graduate within six years, which gives Harvard the distinction of having one of the highest graduation rates for black students.
Even with that, some students say they feel isolated and at times alienated on campus. Historic wealth disparities and cultural differences create a divide that can make studying a greater challenge, Courtney Woods, who is finishing a master’s degree in education policy and management from the Graduate School of Education, pointed out.
“Harvard’s institutional foundation is in direct conflict with the needs of black students,” Woods said. “There is a legacy of slavery, epistemic racism and colonization at Harvard, which was an institution founded to train rising imperialist leaders. This is a history that we are reclaiming.”
Woods said that the graduation ceremony places a focus on blacks who have established themselves as leaders in a fraught environment.
“It speaks volumes that there has never been a black graduation ceremony until now,” she said. “We created this from scratch, because for me, for many of us, we are not here alone. I carry with me the dreams and desires of my family. And as a first-generation, I know I am here to change the trajectory for all of us.”
More than 125 graduate students have registered to participate in the ceremony, which will be held at Holmes Field, near Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass. The students raised more than $27,000 to pay for the ceremony and the reception after, and event organizers hope to expand to include undergraduates next year.
Stanford, Temple and Columbia all have black-student graduations, and the ceremonies have often faced criticism from students and leaders who say they appear divisive.
Black students, however, see the ceremonies as a necessary affirmation, especially at elite institutions.
The students will still participate in the main commencement ceremony, too.
“The students are excited and have put a lot of work into this,” Huggins said. “Too often at Harvard, there is not cross-discipline contact between black students. So it can feel like you are the only person of color. At this graduation, we can show each other and the administration that we are here, we are strong and we are not going away.”