As a transfer student, LaCrisha McAllister ’14 was struggling. She was the only black student in many of her classes and lived in an apartment building where a Confederate flag hung in a window.
Cinnamon Porter ’16 came out as a lesbian before she started college. She and her peers faced extra challenges as they transitioned to the rigors of college life while acknowledging their identities.
Yesenia Garcia, M.S. ’16, grew up in a Latino community in Las Vegas and was comfortable with the diversity she found in her graduate program at Illinois State. She still experienced culture shock as she tried to find a grocery store that stocked ingredients she used for cooking.
These three women exemplify ISU students from nontraditional backgrounds. More than one in five Illinois State students come from such underrepresented groups, and it’s a growing population.
Embracing diversity is one of the University’s core values. One way it is put into practice is with three unique pre-commencement ceremonies that have become annual spring events. They are Umoja, Lavender Graduation, and Nuestros Logros. The purpose of each is to provide graduates, faculty/staff, families and friends the opportunity to participate in a cultural celebration that is in addition to the full May commencement ceremony.
“You are in a space where you can be yourself and be loved, affirmed and celebrated,” said McAllister, former president of the Black Student Union. “That is so important. It’s a rich cultural experience. It can be overwhelming when you think about the odds of students of color making it to this point.”
McAllister was on the steering committee for Umoja, which begins with a procession of faculty—the Harambe Circle—symbolic of leading the way. This year the Sankoa Circle was added, with alumni supporting the students.
The Umoja experience stayed with McAllister as she began her career after graduating with a degree in criminal justice sciences. “I pulled from that day to get me through tough times,” she said. “I leaned on that experience of being in a room full of people who affirmed me.” And that bond with ISU is what also brought her back as a grad student, she said. She’s working on her master’s in social work, with plans to go to law school.
Umoja began as a conversation between Flourice Richardson and Pamela Hoff. Richardson received her graduate certificate in women’s and gender studies in 2015 and is completing a doctorate in English Studies. Hoff is a College of Education Associate Professor who participated in a celebration of black graduates at the University of Cincinnati, where she completed her graduate degrees.
“It connected me beyond academics in a very familiar kind of way,” Hoff said. “It was culturally rich. It was a place where I could express myself by the cultural norms I grew up on, with the excitement and energy that is part of my cultural awareness.”
Richardson was president of the Black Graduate Student Association and was looking for a signature event for black students. They were surveyed to gauge their interest, while some on campus felt it would promote separatism.
“We dealt with that opposition as a community and as a family,” Hoff said. “We came to a consensus and moved forward.”
Anthony T. Williams Jr., M.S. ’14, was one of those who had to be convinced. He’d never heard of a black graduation. “I was a little confused. I didn’t know how that was inclusive of the accomplishments of everyone graduating regardless of your race or ethnicity.”
After some research and talking with Hoff, he was on board.
“In black culture, everything we do is extremely celebratory. We give honor to those who came before us. You grow to love the idea to celebrate where you came from, and it’s not separatism,” Williams said. “It’s not exclusive. Anyone can celebrate this regardless of background. You’re just doing it in a way that celebrates black and African-American culture. It was an amazing ceremony.”
Seeing the success of Umoja, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) community worked with Diversity Advocacy staff to create their own celebration in 2015, which pleased Hoff.
“What we wanted was for other groups to celebrate in very culturally sensitive ways that came natural to them. We were hoping that would happen,” Hoff said.
“It’s not about separating anyone; it’s about celebrating who we are. We all have different struggles. Some of the things I may experience as a heterosexual woman who is black is very different than queer and transgender women, though we share the same space.”
Richardson pointed out that the celebrations support Illinois State’s vision and strategic plan Educating Illinois, affirming and encouraging community and respect for differences by fostering an inclusive environment.
“When I proposed this program, I was also thinking about how this could be something important for ISU,” she said. “When students feel welcomed, they come here, or they tell other people to come here. This is valuable for recruitment. It’s about celebrating who we are, as a campus and as a community.”
Hurdylyn Woods ’02, M.S. ’04, was part of the initial Umoja discussions and said the biggest misconception was that the ceremonies would replace commencement. As Diversity Advocacy coordinator in the Dean of Students Office, he works with committees planning the events.
“These ceremonies are designed to show students they are valued, and it’s hoped their relationship will continue with ISU as alumni,” he said. “It’s not a graduation, it’s a graduation celebration. Part of the ceremony is acknowledging the ancestors who made it possible for these students to be in this place. It’s very, very powerful.”
The Lavender Graduation is smaller, with about 30 participants, because some LGBTQ students may not have shared their identity. “It is very personal in the sense that each graduate had a mentor, a partner, or a friend who affirmed their identity—not for just being a good student, a good person or an achiever, but for who they are,” said Associate Dean of Students Renee Watson. “The reality is they may never get that kind of affirmation in such a public format again.”
Porter participated and wore the rainbow stole she received to commencement. The event was meaningful “because with these different identities that we have, we face extra challenges,” she said. “These ceremonies provide a space to let us all collectively feel like we faced certain challenges, and we were able to get through this together. It’s very supportive and acknowledges our identities.”
Jaime Flores ’80, first president of the Illinois State University Latin@ Alumni Network and former member of Illinois State University’s Board of Trustees, was involved in creating Nuestros Logros. He spoke at the 2016 ceremony.
“Nuestros Logros was a very endearing ceremony, very special,” he said. “For families, going through any graduation event is big, but the majority of minorities are typically first generation. A college degree is a big deal. Any ceremony highlighting that degree is a big deal. These events are more intimate and less ceremonial.”
Garcia was on the steering committee for Umoja and Nuestros Logros. The experiences deepened her connection as an alum.
“It was impactful for me,” she said. “Seeing Jaime Flores, a leader, talking about the networks that are out there for us, knowing people who share our identities and experiences are willing to lend us a hand before we even ask for it, that helps you feel connected in a powerful way.”
This celebration of black graduates started in 2013. It is typically held in the Center for Performing Arts, where a standing-room-only crowd celebrates African-American students and other students of color. Umoja is the Swahili word for unity. The ceremony honors students through a culturally rich program, with drumming and faculty in African dress placing stoles around the shoulders of undergraduates and graduates.
The Lavender Graduation
Celebration of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) and Allied graduates started in 2015 and was modeled after Umoja. It creates a safe space for LGBTQ students celebrating their degrees with their families, faculty and staff.
Two years ago, the Diversity Advocacy staff in the Dean of Students Office decided something should be done for the Latino(a) community at Illinois State as well. Nuestros Logros, which means our achievements, was added as a third unique celebration for underrepresented students.
Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.