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Ryerson’s first Black Excellence Graduation Celebration

Virtual celebration recognizes achievements of self-identified Black students
By: Antoinette Mercurio
June 29, 2020
Five Black woman graduates wearing blue convocation gowns and Kente stoles

2019 Ryerson graduates wear the Kente stoles that will be given to this year’s Black graduates who participated in the virtual Black Excellence Graduation Celebration. Photo credit: Mark Yan/LifeTouch Canada.

On June 11, community members gathered online for the first Ryerson University Black Excellence Graduation Celebration to recognize the achievements of self-identified Black students who are graduating in 2020.

The event was organized by the Black Excellence Committee, a multi-unit team comprised of staff and students from the Office of the Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion (OVPECI); Office of the Vice-Provost, Students (Tri-Mentoring, Experiential Learning Hub and Student Life Programs); and Alumni Relations. The committee formed in fall 2019 to pool together resources, expertise and passion to ensure that Black excellence is built into the culture of the university. With a commitment to providing continued support to self-identified Black students as they pursue their academic, professional and personal development goals, the committee also hosted the inaugural Black Student, Faculty and Staff Mixer and Student Achievement Awards in March 2020. 

Even though plans were already underway for a celebration, COVID-19 unfortunately prevented students, faculty, staff and alumni from congregating in person. But that didn’t affect the nearly 200 Black graduates receiving an uplifting boost from the virtual reception, which served as a bright spot, offering music, Black pride and joy against the backdrop of worldwide unrest and hardships being experienced by the Black community. 

The event was emceed by Faculty of Arts 2012 graduate Justin Bobb and DJ Mary B set the happy vibe with music. Speakers included: Pamela Appelt, community elder and retired judge (the first Black woman to serve on the Court of Canadian Citizenship), who offered words of encouragement and empowerment to graduates; creative industries professor Cheryl Thompson; and Vanessa Henry, 2019 criminology graduate.

Black graduates who registered for the virtual reception will receive a Kente stole that they will wear at convocation. The university is working to find ways for spring 2020 graduates to have an opportunity to attend a convocation ceremony when gatherings are permitted and deemed safe. 

“You have persevered and succeeded under difficult circumstances – some of them recent, and some of them long-standing. You graduate at a time when society is rightfully calling for change,” said President Mohamed Lachemi. “On my office wall is a black and white photograph of Malcolm X, kneeling alone in a place of worship in Africa. The photo was taken in 1964 at the height of an earlier civil rights struggle in the United States.

“For me, the image is a symbol of inner reflection, faith and personal strength – the building blocks of hope. And it is a daily reminder of my favourite quote from Malcolm X, ‘Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.’”

A catalyst for change

Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion Denise O’Neil Green reminded grads of the value of connection and leaning in to each other in continuing to create change in the world.

“I hope that you are taking time to connect with your people. To be courageously vulnerable by acknowledging your feelings, both good and bad, and to also exercise your empathy muscles to listen and be there for one another,” Green said. “These are the building blocks of relationships that will last a lifetime. I am gratified and inspired by the passion of Black graduates at Ryerson, who come from all over the world.

“I know you probably dreamed of this moment being a bit different, but I hope you still enjoy and savour it, as it represents years of hard work, commitment, sacrifice and I bet, a lot of sweat and tears. Today, I am proud to be here as part of your community, pushing and encouraging you to use your gifts to make meaningful change both at Ryerson and in your larger communities.”

Youth are shaping the future

Black youth have primarily been the leaders of the current, ongoing movement for Black liberation. The power of social media has been used to build awareness, share resources and shed light on the historical legacy of white supremacy and its roots in systemic racism. 

Graduate Smyrna Wright, arts and contemporary studies in the Faculty of Arts, was heavily involved in campus life and community as the president of United Black Students at Ryerson and youth peer mentor coordinator at Stella’s Place. She spoke to her peers about the importance of Black community building and unity.

“The moments that were my greatest revelations and where I recognized the most about myself was from doing the work that needed to be done in our community,” Wright said. “For all of us, the work continues, the love continues, the imagination gets bigger and the passion goes deeper. I lead with this message because I want to remind everyone that you are someone worthy, you are someone capable, you are someone with big dreams, big aspirations, the ability to create change and the ability to use your voice. 

“When you walked into this space, you made it what it was. You’re beyond the value society says it holds. When we talk about building community, we built that for ourselves but we also built a legacy. I encourage you to continue to move on through your life with the same zest and tenacity you brought to Ryerson, if not more than that. We are our biggest assets to reimagining what our future could look like.”

The Black Excellence committee is planning more activities for Black students at Ryerson. They are looking at a variety of options to hear student voices, to celebrate the unique experiences and perspectives that are brought to Ryerson through Black students, as well as to make the Black Student Lounge (located at KHW-077) on campus a hub of activity and excitement for Black students going forward. The Black Excellence website is the go-to place to discover what is being planned and for people to get involved.

A recording of the event can be viewed online, external link using the password 8z&f3*72.

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