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Commencement speaker: JCSU grads' progress undeniable

The sky was overcast the morning of JCSU’s 145th Commencement exercise, but the clouds held back tears as 277 new faces took their place in the pantheon of Golden Bulls alumni.

That’s more than can be said for the thousands of family members, friends and supporters that packed the Irwin Belk Center May 21, 2017. Cheers pierced the air, and the thunder of ecstatic feet in the stands caused many a glance at the sky.

Suzanne Elise Walsh delivered the keynote speech. The deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success Team has a reputation for fighting alongside HBCUs as an agent of change and advocate for JCSU’s radical transformation. President Ronald L. Carter conferred upon her an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree and introduced her to the assembled with a litany of credentials that included a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University and a master’s degree and Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Walsh used this introduction to jump right into the main point of her speech.

“This was an asset-based narrative, as opposed to a deficit model,” she told the soon-to-be graduates. “But let me tell you a different story.”

She went on to re-introduce herself as the product of a “barely legal” interracial marriage, who flunked the bar exam and failed out of law school.

“A deficit biography is you on your worst day, and it’s sometimes the story of our HBCUs. But through a different lens, that story improves,” Walsh said. “I understand privilege, and I want everyone seated today to know that graduating from JCSU gives you privilege, no matter what circumstances you come from. Your asset-based narrative begins with Johnson C. Smith University.”

Walsh elaborated upon the history of JCSU, citing its tradition of risk-takers and edge pushers from Dr. Reginald Hawkins, a Civil Rights force in 1960s Charlotte, to Joshua Fernandez ’17, who was recently tapped by Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts to help facilitate a city-wide art initiative.

“JCSU prepared you to tackle all the truth, beauty and challenges of the world,” Walsh said. “Your narrative is one of undeniable force.”

Marissa Duff ’17 followed Walsh with a rousing valedictory address that incorporated the Communication Arts/Dance major’s love of poetry.

After she departed the stage, one by one, each of the 277 graduates heard their names called and ascended the stage to receive the degrees they’d worked so tirelessly to earn. There were 225 bachelor degrees and 54 Master of Social Work degrees conferred. Two undergraduates earned double degrees.

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