On May 20, 2020, the School of Public Policy (SPP) celebrated graduating students in a virtual event highlighting the students’ accomplishments. The inaugural event is part of a larger effort by the Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB) Task Force to highlight the experiences and successes of students of color in SPP.
After brief messages from DIB Task force members, students, faculty and staff heard from two keynote speakers: Meshea Poore, vice president of diversity and inclusion at West Virginia University, and Will Jawando, councilmember for Montgomery County, Maryland. Both speakers emphasized that though the way forward for these new graduates would be challenged by systems of institutional racism, they have been well-equipped with knowledge, experience, resources and skills to succeed in their future endeavors.
“You’re going to have people that tell you you’re not supposed to be in the space, but we’re not asking for permission,” said Poore. “What is true is that you are excellent. What is true is that you are prepared. What is true is that you are capable, you are qualified, and you are ready.”
The School, along with the University, has had to adapt to online offerings amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, including ways to celebrate commencement. Poore used this as an analogy to talk about the struggles the students’ have already overcome and highlighting that their presence during commencement, regardless of its virtual nature, was an indicator of excellence for the graduating class.
“People will not understand all the things that you've had to accomplish just to be where you are now. You’ve been dealing with pandemics your whole entire life, so this ain’t nothing,” said Poore. “You are being a representative to someone who needs to see that they can do it too. So don’t ever get confused about what it means to be where you are this very moment.”
Jawando shared stories from his life, ranging from his childhood experiences with inequality to his time on Capitol Hill, to shine a light on the significant impact new graduates can have on policy making and to give advice for their next steps. He emphasized the importance of persistence in pursuing a path to success. He also highlighted a personal story of a childhood friend lost to gun violence as a call to students to remember the reasons why they seek to affect policy change.
“Economic inequality, transportation, lack of funding for afterschool programs, culturally proficient teachers, all those things and many more had nothing to do with my merit or his fault. They were all connected to systemic, budgetary, and policy decisions that chose his zipcode to be at a significant disadvantage,” said Jawando. “Every one of you has a story like this on why you decided to get into public policy. What are the passions, good, bad or otherwise, that drive you in this work? Remember why you are doing this.”
After a Q&A session with the speakers and a message from the Dean, the hour-long celebration concluded with a two-part sendoff by faculty and members of the DIB Task Force. A slideshow of each graduating student with their photo, degree, and future plans played before the meeting switched to a gallery view that showed faculty and staff holding up signs with messages of congratulations. The participants in the celebration were able to cheer, wave handmade signs, and congratulate each other for earning their degrees. The event closed out to the sounds of celebratory music.
Individuals interested in learning more about the DIB Task Force can contact Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Officer Patricia Bory at firstname.lastname@example.org.