Gold and silver balloons bobbed up and down, eager fingers gripped bouquets of roses and wildflowers as parents, friends and family rushed through the doors of Jackson State University’s Lee E. Williams Athletic and Assembly Center for the HBCU’s Fall Commencement exercise on Friday morning.
Dr. Rod Paige, interim president, reminded the 420 undergraduates he once was in their shoes, and then he proceeded with an ultimatum: “You can either sit on the bench, or you can get in the game.”Paige heartened the students, whose faces wore various expressions of excitement, to embrace their new roles as leaders and to take advantage of what they have learned from their “great” university, faculty, parents and loved ones.
“All of us have such faith in you. Take that and don’t sit on the bench. Get in the game; play your role; become a leader; do what’s right, help all of us; go for it. We want you to go for it; this is your world. You can handle it; get in front of it, and lead it,” Paige pressed before returning to his seat.
Serving as keynote speaker, Dr. Mark G. Henderson, chair of JSU’s Department of Speech and Theatre, wanted those in attendance to know that “if you came today to hear all the negative statistics about what our young people are not doing, I regret to inform you that it ain’t happening here,” he said with conviction.
Henderson warned that the world was waiting to find out who, in fact, are the 2016 JSU graduates and, in response, he urged the students to “tell them who you are.”
“You the graduates are the next generation – that you are the ones we dare to be different and we dare to make a difference,” he bellowed from the podium.
The founder of the MADDRAMA Performance Troupe, in a signature, animated fashion, encouraged students to share the story of their family.
Swaying side to side, Henderson said: “Tell them you come from a long line of success stories. A lineage of people who have taken little to do a whole lot. Let them know you will stand steady and steadfast through it all. You must tell them who you are when you leave this place.”
The speech continued to swell as he commanded the fall graduates to let all who inquired know that they were “standing on the shoulders of ordinary people who did extraordinary things.”“Let them know you are standing on the shoulders of mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers who stepped back so that you could step forward.” – Dr. Mark Henderson
Paying homage to JSU forebears, Henderson commended alums such as Dr. John A. Peoples, who led the university through the turmoil of the civil rights movement, and Detroit native Dr. Earlexia Norwood, one of the first African Americans to graduate from the University of Iowa Medical School.
The speech and theater chair said the 2016 class needed to advance the legacy on which they stood because there would be immense attention from those waiting to see if the graduates will embrace the philosophy of being the best.
“It takes nothing at all to be ordinary. It takes nothing at all to be mediocre, but it would take all the strength that you could muster to be the best that’s within you – to be extraordinary, to be efficient and effective,” he said.
Laughter flitted through the audience as Henderson advised that the only time success came before work was in the dictionary.
He explained the differences between education and process and singled out graduate Keith Kennard as an example of the extreme measures one endures when working toward an achievement.
When Kennard decided to return to college at the age of 52, he chose to enroll at JSU over the more convenient Morehouse College in his hometown of Atlanta.
“I saw an infomercial for Jackson State one night when they were in Georgia for the battle of the bands. I came here for a visit during the summer and loved it. I ended up with a full academic scholarship,” he said.
While at JSU, Kennard still maintained full–time employment as a nurse at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital. He would depart from the capital city on Thursday nights, return to the ATL, and work 12-hour weekend shifts at Emory. Once his shift would end on Monday mornings, Kennard would make the six-hour trek back to JSU for his Monday evening class.
It was a grueling routine the speech and theater major endured for two years, but he credits motivation and determination for his resolve.
“This is a dream deferred for me, and coming here and seeing the logo –Finish what you start– on the (JSU) billboard is what gave me the drive to push through. It was hard. It was really hard,” he admitted.
The single father of four boys, ages 18 – 26, is ecstatic that his youngest son will be a sports management major at the university in the Fall of 2017. But, Kennard is still basking in the glory of finally completing his bachelor’s degree in speech.
“This moment is awesome and for anyone who is a non-traditional student, over 30, who thinks that their dream has ended, and they cannot come to school, please realize that your dreams can come true, and Jackson State University is the place where that can happen,” he said.
In a rousing conclusion of his commencement address, Henderson made sure students were aware that they would encounter adversity. But, he emboldened them to be leaders. “It doesn’t matter if you’re European American, African American, Hispanic American or Native American,” he said. “All that matters is: i-can.”
Henderson pushed the graduates to go after their dreams with a poetic and rhythmic delivery that brought the 2016 class to their feet where they immediately erupted into thunderous applause.