One hundred and nine Bennett College students shook my hand and received their diplomas on Saturday, May 5. With big smiles and a little swagger, they went through the time-honored ceremonies of baccalaureate and commencement. And, we were blessed to have phenomenal friends join us. The Rev. Al Sharpton was our baccalaureate speaker, and the Hon. Alexis Herman was our graduation speaker. Wow! Between the two of them they offered lessons for graduates all over the world.
Sharpton is an exceptional leader, brother and friend. He made lots of accommodations (including taping his show) to get to Bennett on time. He was gracious, kind, and took pictures with all my folks. But most importantly, he brought an incredible message to the campus. He told our students to claim their crown, claim their destiny. He reminded them of the many ways that the rejected eventually prevail and asked them to claim their crown. Earning several minutes of standing applause, it is clear that Sharpton knocked it out of the park.
And then we had the Herman, the former Secretary of Labor, whose down-home humor and corporate knowledge combine to offer sage, savvy, and humorous advice. She shared that a potential employer said the best job she could get was as a secretary, and she fulfilled his prediction by being secretary of labor for the United States. She offered students pointed advice about navigating a labor market that is lagging, about one that only generated 115,000 jobs last month, when more than 170,000 people withdrew from the labor market because they are so discouraged that they think the jobs are not there. But my sister Alexis Herman didn’t allow in the negative, but encouraged students to be positive and encouraged to do their homework and prepare for interviews, to be focused and phenomenal. It is important to note that she is the woman Dorothy Irene Height, Ph.D., laid hands on, a sister who brings us all together and encourages us all to make a difference.
Between Herman and Sharpton, my students got a blessing. They were told to persevere, to accept their crown and destiny, and to do their homework to make their dreams come true. While physically Herman and Sharpton were simply speaking to Bennett students, in some ways they were speaking to our nation and our world. They were reminding us that despite tough and crazy economic times, each of us can make a difference in our own circumstances when we are focused, committed, and forward thinking.
There are more than 1.7 million young people, and some not so young, who will graduate from college this May and June. How many will have the one-two punch of Al Sharpton and Alexis Herman? They are my friends, and I am glad to have them. They are luminaries, and visionaries, folks who speak both Ebonics and high phonics. They sowed into the lives of 109 Bennett women who have graduated, but they have also sowed into the life of our nation. I have been blessed to have them grace our campus presence.
The bottom line of the Sharpton/Herman message was powerful. Sharpton urged us to claim our crown, our dignity, and the array of our possibilities. Herman reminded us that to win the game we have to play it. Between them, they advised Bennett students to claim their destiny, even in a tough economy. It’s an interesting time. Young people are being kicked to the curb with the possibility that Pell grants will be further cut, with the possibility that interest rates will raise for student loans.
The absolute bottom line is that this is a tough and challenging economy, yet there are opportunities. At Bennett, there were two speakers who urged students to claim their crown, to never give up, despite the challenges of the economy. Their message hit home on our campus, but it also hit home in our nation and our world. Thank you, Al Sharpton and Alexis Herman for coming to Bennett and for sharing your wisdom with our students.
As of May 6, 2012, Julianne Malveaux becomes president emerita of Bennett College for Women. She is an economist, author, leader, and global thinker.
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