In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis that has forced colleges and universities across the nation to postpone their commencement celebrations, a coalition of HBCU leaders, advocacy organizations, and corporate partners have come together to host the National HBCU Commencement Celebration. The virtual event, the brainchild of Paul Quinn College president Dr. Michael J. Sorrell, will be streamed live internationally on ESSENCE Studios (www.essencestudios.com) thanks to a partnership with ESSENCE – the leading media, technology, and commerce company serving Black women and communities for 50 years.
The celebration will take place on Saturday, May 16, 2020, and will feature celebrity hosts, motivational speakers, musical performances, and the profiles of HBCU valedictorians and other graduates. In addition to highlighting this year’s graduates and their institutions, the event will raise funds for participating HBCUs and their students.
“As the result of COVID-19, our students have been robbed of a moment that they and their families have earned,” said Sorrell. “I am so grateful that this coalition of partners stepped up to answer the call of the HBCU community and stand in the gap for our students and their families.”
In addition to Paul Quinn College, the celebration is being organized by Howard University, The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), Thurgood Marshal College Fund (TMCF), and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). The event is being supported by several partners, including ESSENCE, JPMorgan Chase, and the National Basketball Association (NBA).
“We are excited that graduates from our member-schools will receive the public recognition that they earned and deserved,” said Dr. Harry L. Williams, President, and CEO of TMCF, which represents 47-member schools. “This celebratory event is an effort to lift up all of our students and to let them know that we are proud of their hard work and perseverance, especially during these difficult times.”
Dr. Michael Lomax, President, and CEO of UNCF praised the event and said that the celebration will reinforce the importance and history of HBCUs.
“For 76 years, UNCF has helped more than half a million students graduate from college, and our mission remains the same even as we grapple with the impact of COVID-19,” said Lomax. “Students who receive a UNCF scholarship have a 70% graduation rate. I hope this program inspires viewers to support students to become college graduates.”
Funds raised during the event will go into an emergency fund to support HBCU students and will be distributed by TMCF and UNCF. These dollars will go a long way in helping students who have been impacted by COVID-19.
“NAFEO is excited to join Dr. Michael Sorrell in realizing his vision and the dream of giving back to HBCU seniors, perhaps the most unfathomable aspect of their abrupt exile—the canceling of the commencement ceremonies,” said Lezli Baskerville, President, and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. “Denying the seniors and their families the opportunity to participate in the ceremonial walk down the aisle to higher ground and the receipt of a ticket to greater economic security, greater independence, opportunities for service, and leadership is a celebration we would not permit for our sons and daughters and their families to miss.”
Added Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, President of Howard University: “Every HBCU in the country has been adversely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic due to interruptions to our academic year and the challenging transition to online learning,” said Frederick. “However, the loss that our seniors are experiencing with the abrupt end to their final semester and subsequent cancellation of the commencement convocation is the most heartbreaking part of this crisis. Hopefully this opportunity to come together as an HBCU community and celebrate these exceptional students will express our sincere gratitude to these scholars for their individual contributions to their respective institutions.”
JPMorgan Chase is supporting this effort through its Advancing Black Pathways initiative, which is committed to helping the black community achieve meaningful gains in three areas: educational achievement, career success, and wealth creation.
“Graduating from college is a sacred moment in a student’s life, and we are honored to support HBCUs, students and their families as we navigate one of the most unique and challenging periods in our nation’s history,” said Sekou Kaalund, the Head of Advancing Black Pathways. “Education is core to our mission of creating opportunity, and we are committed to helping black college students and graduates navigate this difficult environment and get on a path to lasting and rewarding careers.”
“These deserving students have earned the right to commemorate and celebrate the tremendous accomplishment of receiving their diploma and launching the next phase of their lives,” said Oris Stuart, EVP and Chief Diversity Officer for the NBA. “The NBA is proud to support HBCUs and honor their graduates during this momentous occasion.”
“HBCUs have served as educational, social, and legacy pillars in the Black community for generations and continue to be an invaluable treasure to the nation,” said Richelieu Dennis, Founder, and Chair, Essence Ventures, the parent company of ESSENCE. “For more than 180 years, these institutions have equipped students with the critical tools needed to create pathways to success and have cultivated generations of vanguards, trailblazers, and leaders. As we come together to develop innovative solutions for these unprecedented times, we are excited to utilize our ESSENCE Studios platform to provide thousands of 2020 HBCU graduates and their loved ones from around the world with the special commencement experience and celebration they deserve.”