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HBCUs to Host National Virtual Commencement Ceremony

After having conversations with college seniors, Dr. Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, recognized that many were upset about not being able to walk at graduation due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It became apparent just how difficult of a time they were having with losing the commencement ceremony, losing their moment to walk across the stage and celebrate publicly with their families,” said Sorrell.

Believing that students at other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) shared a similar sentiment, Sorrell planned a virtual national commencement ceremony to acknowledge the Class of 2020’s achievements, drawing in celebrities, corporate and political leaders and education advocates who have been ardent supporters of these storied institutions.

Dr. Michael J. SorrellDr. Michael J. Sorrell

The National HBCU Commencement Celebration will be streamed live May 16 by ESSENCE Studios with representation from more than 24,000 students and 75 HBCUs. Celebrity guests will make cameo appearances, there will be musical performances as well as an acknowledgment of the history of HBCUs, valedictorians and Black Greek Life.

“We want students to know that we saw them, that we heard them, that we love them and that we could not give them the moment that we had planned for but we still found a way to give them a special moment,” said Sorrell.

The program is being supported and organized by Howard University, The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). Corporate partners include the National Basketball Association (NBA), Hennessey, Verizon and JPMorgan Chase.

During the event, a fundraiser will also be held to support HBCU students and institutions. All funds raised will be distributed among the participating institutions. TMCF represents 47 public member-schools, while UNCF represents private HBCUs.

“We would hope [the ceremony] would move people enough that they want to contribute to these institutions that do such incredible work,” said Sorrell.

In an interview with Diverse, Dr. Harry L. Williams, president and chief executive officer of TMCF said that the ceremony won’t replace individual campus commencements but will serve as a way to celebrate students since they are “being denied the opportunity to walk.”

According to TMCF, 52% of HBCU students are first-generation and 71% are low-income and Pell grant recipients.

“Graduation is a big deal for the community, the family and everybody celebrates that success because you are literally watching someone in the community elevating up,” said Williams, who previously served as president of Delaware State University. “And that elevates the whole community.”

Williams said that, in addition to institutional faculty, staff and families, potential employers might watch the ceremony and students can leverage that public spotlight.

Dr. Harry L. WilliamsDr. Harry L. Williams

“We want people to know that this is a very important group of scholars that have earned their degrees at respected universities in this country and that they are ready for the next chapter of either going back to graduate school or going on into a career,” he added.

While COVID-19 has dramatically impacted all of higher education, HBCUs in particular, have been hit hard.

Last week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced the disbursal of $1.4 billion in funding to assist minority serving institutions (MSIs), including HBCUs and tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). This funding is part of the larger Higher Education Emergency Relief (HEER) Fund authorized by the recently implemented Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Previously, HBCUs received $353 million from the Department of Education. Under the new disbursal, HBCUs will receive an additional $577 million.

“This funding is a game changer as it relates to the sustainability of our institutions,” said Williams. “This funding will provide the institutions with needed access and needed resources to help recoup from the loss of revenue from students having to leave campus early and campuses having to return funds to these students that the university had already encumbered.”

Williams acknowledged that the allocation of emergency relief funds was a “true” bipartisan effort.

“We’ve also said we are non-partisan and we support all students regardless of their political affiliation,” he said. “And the fact that our Congress heard this along with the president signing the bill that allowed these dollars to go onto our campuses is just outstanding.”

In addition to the federal government and university administration, the corporate community has also played a major role in supporting HBCUs financially, said Williams.

“We are very fortunate and blessed to have people in this country recognizing the importance of historically Black colleges and universities and what it means to the country,” he added. “I think this type of reaction is very clear on the row in where we fit in this country. And it is in a place of prominence and that is very positive.”

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].

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