Twenty-five cultural influencers from around the nation — including hip-hop artists and the former vice president of the U.S. — will appear to congratulate Delaware State University’s Class of 2020 in its virtual commencement celebration at noon May 16.
DSH announced March 14 that students would receive their degrees in an online ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and detailed planning began immediately. A team of faculty, staff, students and friends of the university envisioned a nontraditional ceremony utilizing all available social media platforms to reach graduates and their families around the world.
A few of the notable guests will include CNN and NPR political analyst, attorney, CEO of Impact Strategies and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Angela Rye, who coined “stay woke”; attorney, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson; New York Times Best-Selling author of “Just Mercy”; singer, actress and former Miss America Vanessa Williams; Grammy Award-winning R&B artist Erykah Badu; and former Vice President Joe Biden, Jr.
“We knew better than to try to copy the traditional ceremony at Alumni Stadium,” said Francine Edwards, who is co-chairing the planning committee. “So we set out to create a memorable and surprising experience that the Class of 2020 will treasure forever as their own unique celebration.”
DSU leaned on many alumni in the planning. Nicole Dye-Anderson, Class of 2003 and an executive with Barclays Bank, was helpful in securing a number of the featured guests.
“Del State gave so much to me,” said Dye-Anderson. “Whatever I can do to show my appreciation will be done. I am proud to work for a company that knows the value of HBCUs and gives me the freedom to help showcase them around the world.”
Graduating senior and Student Government President Usman Tijani, whose mother has been diagnosed with COVID-19, agreed.
“In an instant, I went from graduating senior trying to complete everything to get to the finish line, to head of household trying to take care of my son, little brother and mother,” said Tijani. “As a Hornet for life, I’m looking forward to this year’s Commencement and, more importantly, what happens next.”
In April, DSU started the COVID-19 Student Emergency Relief Fund to support students like Tijani, many of whom had to complete spring 2020 coursework in situations threatened by lack of technology, health concerns and food insecurity. DSU has raised $450,000 toward its $1 million goal, and more than 1,200 students have applied for assistance. In addition to many community members and friends, the DSU Alumni Association, The Laffey McHugh Foundation, Bank of America, Strada, The Links of Wilmington, M&T Bank and the Rossi, Struthers and Cummings families have been critical supporters of the fund.
Dover Native and CBS3 Philadelphia television news anchor Ukee Washington will deliver the keynote remarks. Washington was named to the Pennsylvania Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2015 and is the son of the late Ulysses S. Washington, former longtime chair of the DSU’s Department of Agriculture. Washington taught and lived on campus for 50 years.
In addition to celebrating nearly 700 graduates of the largest class ever, the university also graduates its first cohort of children of undocumented workers under the DACA program. Recipients of full scholarships awarded by TheDream.US, more Dreamers choose to attend DSU than any other university in the country. During the ceremony, Donald Graham, founder of TheDream.US and former publisher of the Washington Post, will have an honorary degree conferred in recognition of his humanitarian efforts.
Reflecting on the commencement celebration in these unprecedented times, DSU President Tony Allen said, “I hope this moment has taught us all that whether you are a painter or a pathologist, a teacher or a first responder, a student or a farmworker, the true health of our nation — physically, economically, socially and spiritually — depends on our ability to really be present, one to another. When I confer degrees on the Class of 2020, it is more than a credential that will get them to their next goal. It is a reminder that each of them is now and always ever-present with us.”
The commencement will be followed by another virtual event sponsored by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which will combine 75 HBCUs for a joint commencement ceremony.
TMCF CEO and former DSU President Harry Williams noted, “We are excited that graduates from our member-schools will receive the public recognition that they earned and deserve. This celebratory event is an effort to lift up all HBCU students and to let them know that we are proud of their hard work and perseverance, especially during these difficult times.”
The event will be broadcast on the Essence Studios platform, at essencestudios.com. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund member schools serve nearly 300,000 college students.