Today, I had the privilege of giving the keynote address at a graduation event celebrating the Black and Latino students at UMBC who were graduating this year. What an honor! I started out as a freshman at UMBC thirty years ago in 1991 and embarked on a learning journey that has set a lot of the foundation for all that I am as an adult.
My speech is below.
A great day for a celebration
by Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, Ed.D.
Thank you to the organizers and the CBLA for bringing me in today to share a message with you. UMBC was one of the best chapters in my life, and it is an honor and privilege to be here with you today as you celebrate your milestone achievement.
Today is a great day for a celebration. Today is a great day to celebrate you.
For the students who grow up in this world with identities that are often pushed to the fringe, whether we fall under the labels of being Black, Latino, Asian, Multi-racial, Caribbean, African, Indigenous, Native, POC, BIPOC, minorities or the underrepresented. Today is a great day to celebrate you.
We celebrate your persistence, your resistance, your accomplishments and your journey during a time where we as a nation are at our most conflicted and our most progressive, at our most violent and inflammatory and our most vocal and most radical. You have completed an academic accomplishment that will position you in the eyes of all who know you and all who will know you as a changemaker, as a finisher as a person who started something and decided to complete something in order to make your life and this world a better place for everyone. Today is a great day to celebrate you.
I was once a new finisher of a degree at UMBC almost 30 years ago, 1995 to be exact. I earned my degree from UMBC in Interdisciplinary Studies with a minor in Writing. The program I developed through Interdisciplinary Studies was African-American Studies and Mass Media. Back then, UMBC did not have a Media Studies program. I knew then that I wanted to show up in the world as vocal and as powerful as possible. And, I believed a program of study at UMBC should be one to prepare me for that goal. As a Black person born in America, DC to be exact, African-American studies was a necessary addition to my learning pathway. During my time at UMBC, I had one of the most rigorous and exciting learning journeys that I’ve ever had.
My learning wasn’t just inside the classroom with amazing professors like Dr. Acklyn Lynch or the late Dr. Miriam De Costa-Willis, it was also through opportunities like becoming a McNair Scholar, being able to travel to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands during my winter break before graduation and mentor and tutor children there for a month. Learning was through clubs like the Black Student Union, VOICES magazine, the Gospel Choir, Modeling Club, the Retreiver Newspaper, performing in talent showcases, the 50 million jobs I had on campus as a Resident Assistant, Desk Attendant, Notetaker, Tutor, Fitness Center attendant and Student Peer Advisor. Learning about the world was all around me, inside and outside of the classroom. It was during my training to become a Student Peer Advisor in 1992 when the decision for the Rodney King trial was announced. Rodney King was a black motorist in California who had been filmed being brutally beaten by police. The jury had found the police innocent of any wrongdoing, despite the video recording, and cities across America broke out in protest against the decision. Almost 30 years later, you have had to engage in learning while these types of things continue to happen around you.
Today is a great day to celebrate you
You have had to show up and be present in classes knowing that when you walk off campus, or outside of your home, you can be stopped for any small thing and be misunderstood and manhandled for no reason at all.
You have to had to do your best not to be angry or appear angry so you could just simply be seen or heard or believed or have opportunities shared with you.
You have had to navigate a world that is still adjusting to your presence. A world that reacts often times in the most unelegant and disastrous ways.
But, you are resilient. You are a testament that we are stronger than our struggle. You will re-enter this world as a college graduate, empowered to create spaces and to lead spaces where inequity does not reign supreme. You will model for those who come after you what a UMBC education produces. We are informed. We are engaged and we are equipped with the tools to master all that is handed to us. And, while the road to where you stand today was not easy, it was made possible for those who came before you and determined that you were worthy to create space and opportunity for. I would like for you to think of those very people right now who contributed to your success here at UMBC. At the end of my speech, I will be presenting my poem, An Activist Prayer and afterward, I would like for you to begin typing in the chat the names of those who helped support you during your journey towards completing your degree. These people can be those who are still living or those who have left this realm. I will begin with calling out the names of people who inspired and supported me and then read the names you post in the chat.
I earned my doctoral degree last year in the midst of this global pandemic that is still happening. It took me 4 years to finish but it was 20 years after I earned my Master’s degree in 2000. So, I didn’t just pursue my degrees back to back. Getting back to school wasn’t easy. I was side-tracked by work, parenthood, community activism and all of the things that happen and have the power to sidetrack us or empower us further. But, my UMBC degree kicked off my professional life that included becoming a college instructor, starting a performing arts company called Liberated Muse Arts group focused on social justice work and working in various nonprofit leadership roles such as my current role as the Director of Education and Community Engagement at Montgomery Community Media. Some of you came to UMBC directly from high school, or as transfers from community college, or other four year schools or after a long break from the days when school looked a little bit different. Some of you showed up as teenagers who are now finishing as adults. Some of you showed up as parents caring for children, caring for your own aging parents, or caring for yourself while working and attending school full-time. Some of you are finishing in four years. Some of you took a bit longer. But, all of you have finished.
Today is a great day to celebrate you.
So, let us, today, begin the celebration.