Commencement season is upon us as college graduates prepare to enter the “grown folks’ world” full time. Some were already “adulting” by working their way through school and paying their own tuition. I was thinking about my college graduation last Sunday, since commencement ceremonies are often held on the “Lord’s Day” at historically Black colleges and universities. HBCU ceremonies are akin to church services, as the schools’ gospel choirs belt out songs of praise to celebrate those reaching this significant life milestone.
A longtime, humorous saying among HBCU grads is that some graduate summa cum laude, some magna cum laude, some cum laude, and everyone else is “thank you Lord.” This is one of the opening lines that I remember from the college commencement address given by Dr. Helen G. Edmonds when I graduated from North Carolina Central University in 1991. Dr. Edmonds was the first African American woman to earn a PhD from The Ohio State University, and in her speech, she used “The Wizard of Oz” as an allegory to tell me and my NCCU classmates that we were heading into a world full of great possibilities but also difficult obstacles. We were leaving Kansas, which Dr. Edmonds used to symbolize the safe and nurturing space of our beloved Durham campus.
In reflecting on Dr. Edmonds’ speech today, it is blatantly obvious that we are in a very different time than the early ’90s. The most apparent difference, of course, is technology. While my college classmates and I were reasonably computer literate using word processing programs to type our assignments in school, we were still a few years away from sending emails and searching the internet on a daily basis. I chuckle to myself that since we did not have smartphones we had no choice but to pay attention to Dr. Edmonds’ remarks during our graduation ceremony, as there was really nothing else that could divert our focus besides the cheers from our relatives and the printed programs bearing our names and accomplishments.
Now that I’ve been away from my NCCU “Kansas” for many years, two simple pieces of advice that I have for 2022 college graduates reading this column is not to succumb to fear while pursuing your dreams and not to be beguiled by pride. I’m sure many of you have heard these words of wisdom before, but I feel it is important to reiterate them because of the unique challenges your generation faces. You are stepping into young adulthood in a much more stressful time compared with older generations like mine. There’s a lot of pressure to be successful early in this social media age, and fear and anger can easily settle in at the first experiences of hearing “no.” Don’t become quick-tempered due to rejection, but as Proverbs 14:19 instructs, let patience teach you great understanding. Be patient in knowing that denial of a proposal or project does not mean that you don’t have a brilliant idea. You may have to edit or tweak it a bit, or you may end up starting over. But be assured that if one door closes God has a unique way of opening another. As you begin to work your way toward your career or entrepreneurial goals, always remember those who are helping you along the way, and never get to a point where you cannot take advice from others when it is warranted. Two additional verses from Proverbs regarding pride come to mind here. Proverbs 11:2 says that shame follows pride, but those who are humble gain wisdom, and Proverbs 13:10 states that pride generates “contention” or debate, but those who take counsel also receive wisdom. Strive to be wise in your pursuits and to be an attentive listener of those you work with. You will see that there is something new to learn each day when you exhibit an unpretentious demeanor.
Finally, as you leave your “Kansas” campus, take joy in the opportunities before you to use your God-given talents to make the world a better place. You have been blessed with your abilities for a special purpose. Never let your dreams die as you begin this exciting new chapter of your lives!
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University’s Lima campus.