This article previously appeared on News@Northeastern. It was written by Eva Botkin-Kowacki.

With colorful tassels, cords, hoods, and stoles standing out against their dark caps and gowns, students gathered in-person for one last time at the John D. O'Bryant African American Institute's annual Baccalaureate ceremonies.

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, noted the students' “magnificent achievement” amid racial strife and challenging times, at an event marked with a sense of mutual appreciation between the institute, the university, and the graduates.

“Y'all look beautiful,” the director of the institute, Richard L. O'Bryant, said, beaming at the graduates assembled.  

“It has been a very unusual year, and you made it,” President Aoun said. “You deserve every accolade.”

Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic alter life as we knew it, Aoun said. “We witnessed the murder of George Floyd,” he said. “Systemic racism was clearly something that we saw through this murder … and it's still with us. But I hope that some progress has been made.”

“You have pushed us. You have pushed the institution. You have pushed each other, and your friends to recognize that this is something unacceptable,” Aoun said. “You moved us forward in our thinking, in what we can do. I want to thank you and commend you for that.” 

Students attend the John D. O'Bryant African American Institute's annual Baccalaureate ceremony. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Chief inclusion officer at Northeastern, Karl Reid, reminded the graduates of the legacy of advocacy at the John D. O'Bryant African American Institute. “Upstairs, you'll see a poster board with a set of requirements, or demands which students wrote in 1968,” he said, referring to the 13 demands that Black students put forth to the university in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King to make the then-predominantly white university more inclusive. The Institute was established in 1969 as part of the university's response to those demands.

As O'Bryant prepared to hand graduates their Institute diplomas, he urged the graduates to “take pride.” He said, “show the world that you do matter. That we matter. That our people, our community matters.”

While Institute staff and university officials showered the graduates with kudos and encouragement, some students also saw it as an opportunity to appreciate the Institute staff. 

“The Institute has been a great support for the Black community,” says Stephanie Wango, who served as president for the Northeastern Black Student Association (NBSA) and studied business and communication. 

Richard L. O'Bryant, director of the John D. O'Bryant African American Institute, hands out diplomas during the annual Baccalaureate ceremony. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

For Taylor Trail, who was treasurer of the NBSA and studied business administration and fashion, “having people who were advocating for you on a high level” made a significant difference in her experience at Northeastern. 

In many ways, says Kierra Booker, who served as vice president for the NBSA and studied criminal justice and American Sign Language, the Baccalaureate ceremonies were more personal than she expects the university undergraduate ceremonies at Fenway Park on Saturday to feel. “We know almost every single person here,” she said. “We have personal relationships with everyone.”

Trail agreed. After being off-campus for remote classes much of the last year, she said, “It felt like reconnecting with family.”

In an address to the graduating students, Reid encouraged them to “embrace your hill.”

“How many of us turn down opportunities because we did not have the confidence to do it?” He said. The chief inclusion officer shared an anecdote about being daunted by a half-mile hill while biking. Then, one day, Reid spent his whole bike ride going up and down the hill to conquer his confidence. “My whole attitude about that hill changed,” he recalled. “I began to embrace my hill. There's so much more on the other side.”

So, Reid asked the graduates, “What's your next hill?”

For graduate Erica Belvit, earning a bachelor's in business administration with a concentration in finance and management information systems was itself a hill. “It's been a journey, let's just say that,” she says. Belvit says it was her faith that got her through the rocky parts of her college experience, which she honored with a quote on her graduation cap: “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength.”

Faith was also top of mind—and top of head—for Nicole Thomas, who is earning a Master's degree in project management. Her mother decorated her graduation cap, as she did for Thomas' undergraduate Commencement in 2016. Together, they decided that the double husky's second mortarboard would read, “God is within her, so she can MASTER anything.”

The Institute Baccalaureate was also honoring a triumph for others, too. For Jean Inoa, who is earning a bachelor of science in civil engineering, it was “a celebration of all that we've overcome and showing we've made it.”

Taylor Smith, who is earning a Master of Public Health, said, “It means that Black kids can soar despite the odds.”

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