It didn’t take long for the tears to fall on Friday night as parents, friends and professors embraced William & Mary graduates, one by one, on the Phi Beta Kappa stage and wrapped black, embroidered stoles around their necks as part of the 2014 Donning of the Kente ceremony.
The annual event, started three years ago, seeks to celebrate the accomplishments of William & Mary’s students of color. More than 100 students participated in the May 9 ceremony, including graduate students who were included for the first time this year.
“I'm really excited to participate in this year's ceremony because I didn't have the opportunity as an undergrad,” said Kendra Cabler, who received her bachelor’s degree from W&M in 2011 and graduated with her Master of Education degree this weekend. “I think it's really important to celebrate each of our students' accomplishments. Donning of the Kente provides a unique opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of multicultural students in a more intimate setting with friends and family.”
During the donning portion of the ceremony, the students were called to the stage individually to receive the stoles from one or two people of their choosing. Many of the “donners” were parents or family members, but fraternity brothers, fellow students and faculty or staff mentors also participated. The stoles that the graduates were presented were designed by a student and include a symbol that means “unity in diversity.”
The ceremony was co-sponsored by the Hulon Willis Alumni Association and the W&M Lemon Project. Chon Glover, William & Mary’s chief diversity officer, presided over the event.
Jody Allen, co-chair of the Lemon Project, said that the ceremony provides an opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge the growth that has occurred in the country and at the College over the last three centuries.
“This ceremony remembers those who paved the way for you, and you, in turn, have paved the way for those who will come behind you,” she said. “You’re part of a strong legacy and don’t ever forget it.”
Earl Granger, associate vice president for development fundraising and president of the Hulon Willis Association, also encouraged the graduates to think about those who would come behind them.
“This is a very, very special place, and I just hope that each of you will pay it forward in some way,” he said.
Provost Michael R. Halleran praised the students for successfully completing their work at William & Mary but noted that their graduation would just be the beginning.
“Our job as educators is to help prepare young men and women to help make a difference in the world. How you chose to make a difference, that’s up to you,” he said. “We say in our vision statement that students come here wanting to change the world and they leave with the tools to do it. That’s what I hope you have been able to obtain during your course of study. I want you to go out and make the world a better place.”
One person who has been making such a difference at William & Mary for more than 28 years was honored at the event for her contributions to the institution. Charlotte Davis Brown, director of the McLeod Business Library at the Mason School of Business, “has been a stalwart pioneer at William & Mary,” said Glover. She has been involved in the Black Faculty and Staff Forum and served as a mentor through the Black Student Organization.
Also honored at the ceremony was Olivia Armstrong ’14, the recipient of the 2014 Hulon Willis Alumni Association Leadership Award. Armstrong, a business major, was very engaged during her time at the university, serving with groups such as the W&M NAACP, Orchesis Dance Company and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. She was also a Monroe Scholar and employed at the Sadler Center.
Although the emotional ceremony did occasionally draw tears from participants and audience members alike, the crowd also shared many smiles and laughs throughout the evening as husbands and wives, friends and classmates met on the stage.
“I love the Donning of the Kente because we do a lot of laughing and a lot of crying,” said Allen.
For Cabler, the event was about community and celebrating “the accomplishments of the many sub-communities William & Mary is comprised of.”
“We challenge students day in and day out to be mindful of their roles as members of the Tribe, but how awesome is it that we provide junctures to celebrate and thank them for playing that role,” she said.“As we continue to press toward the mark of true diversity and inclusion it's critical that we acknowledge and support the students already present here on campus. Donning of the Kente is important because it exemplifies all of these notions. I am excited, honored and humbled this Commencement weekend to celebrate with peers all of our accomplishments throughout this journey.”