It’s been a great year for Dillard University but it’s been an even greater tenure for Dr. Walter Kimbrough, University President. He has a unique charisma which almost hypnotizes students and causes them to see an obtainable path towards their future. “I can unequivocally say this is the best class we have had during my tenure of five years here,” he told the sea of people at The Oaks on the campus of Dillard University in New Orleans. “People often say that just to be saying it but I’m saying it and I mean it.”
Family, friends, and community supporters dared a raging tornado to continue. The storm plagued most of the New Orleans Metro the night before with reports of hail in several areas of the city but the participation showed no sign of slacking as traffic officers were swamped while informing people there was no where to park within a 7 block radius of the school. The graduates made their precession and just as the choir prepared to sing the “Black National Anthem” (Lift Every Voice), a ray of sun smiled upon The Oaks. Umbrellas were exchanged for heat.
The highlight of the evening was the participation of Grammy Nominated Songwriter, Janelle Monae. So beautiful and petite, she walked in with the graduates and most people didn’t even recognize it was her until after she passed their section. She was very personal and friendly. Mothers from all over brought their daughters to hear the Hidden Figures star empower. She did just that.
“We have a choice to choose Freedom over Fear. Fear is when we react to what others may think of us. Freedom is when we are the ones deciding the situation,” she lectured. “Fear is when you allow the situation to define you.”
Monae was asked to give the Commencement Speech to the graduating class but was also there as a recipient of an Honorary Degree decided by the President and Board of Directors of Dillard University. She spoke on the heroic efforts of the university’s founders. She reminded the students about opposition and how to overcome any obstacle.
Perhaps the highlight of the day, though, were the two brief speeches by the school’s Valedictorians. Aaliyah Cummings (Shreveport) shared a personal testimony about Faith. “My father died when I was in High School. I lost determination but I applied for college anyway and was offered a scholarship to Dillard,” she said. “God does make a way but we must step out on Faith. Had I not applied and put myself in position I would not be one of your Valedictorians today,” she said.
Cummings made sure the students remembered, “Faith always upstages the facts.”
The other Valedictorian, Oluseun Joaquim, came to the United States for the first time in her life when she came to Dillard. She gave such a colorful and well spoken address that some of her points received sort of a church response from the audience. She spoke about coming to the US with one bag because it’s all she had. But perhaps what shook the crowd was her statement about New Orleans.
“I left Nigeria to land in the New York airport. I was so excited to be in the Big Apple but I am more excited about being in the Big Easy!”
Joaquim also shared a personal testimony. “At age 8, I lost my best friend… my dad. I watched my mother struggle. I had to attend a military school and it was very hard,” she said. However, she was also Valedictorian of her High School. “To succeed, we must survive brutal experiences and learn from them. Discrimination will come. Trials will come. We must learn from it and survive,” she elogantly put it.
She said since she has been at Dillard, her native accent is not as strong and she can proudly say she now has more than one bag. Her mother and extended family from Nigeria were in attendance.
Before distributing degrees, Dr. Kimbrough reminded everyone how speical this class was to him and the administration. He highlighted many students with heartbreaking yet inspirational stories. One lady was a grandmother who never gave up. Another student experienced a life threatening infection which caused her to lose both hands. One young lady was 100% blind but was never late to a class. He mentioned a student who had been trying to graduate for 10 years but was always met with unexpected life events which delayed her college career. As he continued to share the stories, a mixture of tears and claps saturated the atmosphere.
Dr. Kimbrough knew most of the students by first name. He knew their stories off of the top of his head. It showed his personal interest in their lives and a dedication to their future. Nearly 50 of the graduates in this class were the first to ever graduate in their families. A very special tribute was given to the graduates of Dillard’s Class of 1967 who were in attendance celebrating their 50 Year Anniversary.
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