IT did not make headlines. For major news network, it also did not get any mention. Even when major newspapers reported the event, what caught their attention was on what President Barack Obama said when he delivered the commencement lecture at Howard University, Washington DC. But there was a major highlight that was ignored. A report said of the 96 graduating Doctor of Pharmacy candidates, 43 of them were Nigerians and of the 27 awards given, 16 went to Nigerians.
Howard University also awarded a Doctor of Humanities degree to actress and activist Cicely Tyson, a Doctor of Laws to Ambassador Horace G. Dawson, a pioneering member of the U.S. Foreign Service and founding director of the Howard’s Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center, and a Doctor of Science to Dr. L.D. Britt, chairman of the Department of Surgery at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
It awarded more than 1,300 bachelor’s degrees, more than 300 master’s degrees, and over 100 Ph.Ds. The top five areas of concentration were psychology, history, political science, social work and mathematics. Additionally, more than 400 students received professional degrees in law, medicine, pharmacy and dentistry.
Howard University has the only dental and pharmacy colleges in the District of Columbia. The graduates represented 46 states and 35 countries. The youngest graduate at the ceremony was 20-years-old and the oldest was 74.
Founded in 1867, Howard University is a private, research university that is comprised of 13 schools and colleges. Students pursue studies in more than 120 areas leading to undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees. Since 1998, the University has produced two Rhodes Scholars, two Truman Scholars, a Marshall Scholar, 30 Fulbright Scholars and 11 Pickering Fellows. Howard also produces more on campus African-American Ph.D. recipients than any other university in the United States.
Speaking at the event, Obama emphasized that his election has not created a “post-racial society” despite improved race relations.
Stressing the need to keep pushing for change, he gave the students at the historically black university impassioned advice on how to “shape our collective future.”
Chief among that advice: Vote, “not just some of the time but all of the time.” He added: “When we don’t vote we give away our power.”
He described the university as a “centerpiece of African-American intellectual life, and a central part of our larger American story.”
Arguing that the U.S. — and the world — is a “better place” than when he graduated from college in the early 1980s, he said there is still work to be done, citing employment, achievement and justice gaps for African-Americans.
“Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness,” he told the graduates. “There’s no one way to be black. Take it from somebody who’s seen both sides of the debate about whether I’m black enough.”
Obama told the graduates to remember the ties that connect African-Americans: “That is our particular awareness of injustice, and unfairness, and struggle. … That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.
“We have cousins, and uncles, and brothers, and sisters, who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were but somehow got ground down by structures that were unfair and unjust, and that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African-Americans who haven’t been so lucky.”
That empathy should extend to “all people who are struggling,” he said.
Finally, he advised the grads that creating change requires organization and strategy. That strategy has to include voting, Obama added:
“People try to make this political thing really complicated … you know what? Just vote. It’s math. If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want.”
Moreover, he said change requires compromise and “listening to those with whom you disagree.”
Obama said when he received a bachelor’s degree in 1983, there were no Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and few Black judges. He said it was important to note the progress America has made in race relations since then.
“To deny how far we have come would be a disservice to those who went before. There’s still so much work to do, so many miles to travel,” Obama said. “America needs you to gladly, happily take up that work.”
Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick said President Obama was awarded a Doctor of Science degree (not doctor of laws or letters) to underscore how much the Affordable Care Act means to this country as a whole. He urged graduates to embrace Obama as a personal role model and to emulate his trademark graciousness.
In his remarks, Obama addressed “a justice gap when too many Black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.” However, he emphasized that passion alone was not enough to cement lasting change.
“If you care about mass incarceration, what are you doing to pressure the Congress to pass the pending legislation that might alleviate it?” Obama asked. “Passion is vital, but you’ve got to have a strategy. And your plan better include voting, not just some of the time, but all of the time.”
Obama credited two Howard University legal icons, Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston, for their leadership in overturning Jim Crow segregation laws.
“The seeds of change for all America were sown here,” Obama said.
Speaking from his own experience, Obama encouraged African Americans to continue to embrace their heritage and to “be confident in your Blackness.” Even so, he noted that there was no one way to be Black, and no litmus test for authenticity.
“Look at Howard,” Obama said. “One thing most people don’t realise about Howard is how diverse it is. You shatter stereotypes.”