Graduation In The Age Of The Coronavirus: HBCU Edition

Graduation In The Age Of The Coronavirus: HBCU Edition
Former President Barack Obama speaking at the graduation. (Screenshot used with permission)

AMERICA – Every year, graduates look forward to walking down the aisle in their caps and gowns. It took them years to get to where they are; to achieve such a tremendous milestone. This year, ‘Show Me Your Walk,’ a virtual graduation ceremony hosted by HBCU (Historically black colleges and universities) and JPMorgan Chase took place online and on television on Saturday, honoring the graduating class of historically black colleges and universities around the country, including Brooklyn’s very own, Medgar Evers College.

The virtual 2-hour long graduation featured many guests including former President Barack Obama, comedian Kevin Hart, basketball player Chris Paul, actress Tasha Smith, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, and so many more. Several presidents/chancellors of colleges around the country also made an appearance wishing their graduates well, including Medgar Evers College President Rudy Crew. There were also a few performances, including one by Gary Clarke Jr., all there to celebrate the accomplishments of 2020 graduates.

“These aren’t normal times. You’re being asked to find your way in a world in the middle of a devastating pandemic and a terrible recession. The timing is not ideal. And let’s be honest — a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country,” Obama said. “We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog, and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning.”

“Many of you could have attended any school in this country. But you chose an HBCU — specifically because it would help you sow seeds of change. You chose to follow in the fearless footsteps of people who shook the system to its core — civil rights icons like Thurgood Marshall and Dr. King, storytellers like Toni Morrison and Spike Lee. You chose to study medicine at Meharry, and engineering at NC A&T, because you want to lead and serve,” he continued.

“And I’m here to tell you, you made a great choice. Whether you realize it or not, you’ve got more road maps, more role models, more resources than the civil rights generation did. You’ve got more tools, technology, and talents than my generation did. No generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world.”

Before the virtual graduation took place Saturday evening, Bklyner got to speak to Medgar Evers graduate Aryls Tineo and Sekou Kaalund, the Head of JPMorgan Chase Advancing Black Pathways, who was also featured in the virtual ceremony.

Tineo, 21, is a first-generation Dominican-American and a Crown Heights resident. She graduated from Medgar Evers College with a baccalaureate in social work and will soon be attending New York University’s Silver School of Social Work as part of the class of 2021.

“Being a first-generation college student, I was devastated to find out I wouldn’t be able to walk across the stage for my bachelor’s degree,” she told Bklyner. “I know my family was looking forward to my graduation for the past three years and to have such anticipated plans change drastically left me in a state of shock, confusion, and frustration all at the same time.”

The pandemic has affected everyone in different ways. For Tineo, she found herself mentally displaced. She keeps thinking about what she would be doing and where she would be if there was no pandemic. It was also difficult for her because she had to switch to online classes “at home on my couch, and not in a classroom at a desk.”

“And that’s what I think is the most stress-inducing factor: uncertainty. Not knowing when we’ll physically return to work, school, and our normal lives,” she said.  “Not being able to easily see our loved ones. However, the pandemic has forced me to become more open-minded and has resulted in more self-reflection on my part.”

Aryls Tineo (left). (Photo used with permission)

This virtual graduation ceremony was actually the second one JPMorgan Chase hosted. The first one took place on May 2 and was to celebrate students everywhere. In partnership with JPMorgan Chase’s Advancing Black Pathways program, another ceremony was held dedicated to HBCU graduates.

“We’ve organized these events because so many students are missing out on an experience they’ve spent their lives preparing for,” Kaalund told Bklyner. “We know that a virtual commencement could never replace a live graduation ceremony, but we still want to give them an experience that they’ll never forget.”

JPMorgan Chase’s Advancing Black Pathways initiative was launched a year ago to help black communities close historical achievement gaps in three key areas: wealth creation, educational outcomes, and career success. Supporting HBCU’s is extremely important to the initiative, Kaalund explained, saying the firm is also committed to hiring 4,000 black students by 2025.

For Kaalund, this is all personal. His mother taught at an HBCU, and his father and brother are both HBCU graduates.

“I recognize the historical significance of these institutions both for black Americans and to our entire nation, and they’ve certainly had an impact on my life through my immediate family,” he said. “But above all, I just feel fortunate that we’re able to show up for these students in a big way, and I’m just glad to be able to play a part in it.”

Kaalund wants the Class of 2020 to recognize what it has accomplished.

“These graduates have endured a lot to reach this moment. They’ve demonstrated to all of us what it takes to thrive and survive in a time of crisis. This is a trait that will serve them well in life,” he said.

“Although, they’re transitioning into a world that’s undergoing massive, and historic changes—there is still a way forward, even if the path doesn’t seem so clear right now. Our world will recover. Our economy will rebound, and you will still have an opportunity to make your mark on the world.”

“I have faith in the innovative spirit of our society. We’re resilient. I know that although things may seem bleak now due to the pandemic and resulting economic fallout, I trust that we will bounce back. History tells us this is the case,” he continued. “Beyond that, I’m thankful to work for a company that’s committed to leveraging its resources to drive a positive, tangible impact on the communities we serve.”

Tineo is content with having a virtual graduation. She acknowledged that though it’s not a physical one, it still holds significance in her life.

“The class of 2020 will go down in history as the most resilient class. This is an accomplishment that should be celebrated. Nothing stopped us from getting our degrees, not even a global pandemic. This is a historic moment that we will talk about for generations to come. In such a turbulent time in history, let’s celebrate and rejoice,” Tineo said.

“What gives me hope is that this is all temporary. This won’t be forever. At some point, we will enter a new normal. I don’t know when that time will arrive, but I will welcome it with open arms.”


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