‘A Cultural Commitment to Excellence’: Cheers and Tears Abound at the 28th Black Graduate Celebration

The event gives Saint Mary’s Black community a time to recognize those who came before and applaud the perseverance of graduating students. And to remember, as keynote speaker Novella Hicks said, “Any dream is possible, but you must first have one.”

by Hayden Royster, Staff Writer | May 24, 2024

Since 1996, the Intercultural Center’s Black Graduate Celebration has provided Black Gaels a space to commemorate their college journeys: the obstacles overcome, the successes secured, and above all, the many, many supporters along the way. 

At this year’s event on May 23, traditions were as central as ever. Zahra Ahmed, associate professor of Politics and the event’s emcee, began by inviting those gathered in LeFevre Theater to honor their ancestors, speaking aloud the names of those who had come before. Later, the crowd rose to sing the Black National Anthem: James Weldon Johnson’s turn-of-the-century hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” featuring performers Adanna Ogu and Kaylin Holliman '26. And, as in recent years, the 32 graduates stepped onstage to the sunny groove of Jill Scott’s “Golden” spilling out of the speakers. 

There were plenty of tears and cheers to go around throughout the evening. And for good reason: As keynote speaker Novella Hicks '24 acknowledged, graduating college is no small feat, especially for historically marginalized and under-represented individuals like herself. “You are looking at a miracle,” she said.  

Novella is a classroom teacher and single mother of two. After completing her teaching credential this May, she will continue on at SMC to earn her PhD in Education. As an educator, she says, “It is my mission to instill in all my students that any dream is possible, but you must first have one.” 

28th Annual Black Graduate Celebration
“You are looking at a miracle”: The words of Novella Hicks ’24, far left, keynote speaker and one of 32 graduates recognized at this year's Black Graduate Celebration. / Photo by Francis Tatem

The graduates at this event were applauded for their achievements, as loved ones placed kente cloth-patterned graduation stoles around their shoulders. Awards were presented as well, to students and their allies. 

Tangela Blakely Reavis, an associate professor of Educational Leadership in the Kalmanovitz School of Education, and Skye Ward, an administrative assistant in the Department of Kinesiology, received awards for their exceptional commitment to Saint Mary’s Black community.

Next, Briana Alexander '24—a Biochemistry and Business Administration double major, Resident Advisor, and Team Leader at Jumpstart—received the Corliss Watkins Student Award. (This is the second award this week for Alexander, who also received the Dr. Dennis Award at the High Potential Graduate Celebration on May 22.) The honor is named after the late Corliss Watkins, a beloved mentor of students of color and the director of the Student Engagement and Academic Success Office from 2007 to 2018.

Ultimately, Zahra Ahmed emphasized in her opening remarks, the annual celebration is a chance to highlight the perseverance of Saint Mary’s Black students. “We’re here to honor each of them tonight, and our cultural commitment to excellence, which each of them represents. So let’s give them another hand.” 

Not for the last time, the theater roared with applause. 


Snapshots from the 2024 Black Graduate Celebration