Numerous unique commencement celebrations took place this spring. Among them were Éxitos, the fifth annual Latinx recognition reception, hosted by the Carolina Latinx Collaborative and Diversity & Inclusion; and the inaugural Umoja event, honoring Black graduates and planned by the Black Student Movement and the Carolina Black Caucus.
The Éxitos Recognition Reception
Held at the FedEx Global Education Center, Éxitos recognized the work and dedication of 40 graduate and undergraduate students who have devoted their time to the Latinx community. Approximately 170 students and family members attended the festive ceremony, enjoying a variety of empanadas, tacos and chipotle black beans (catered by Lucha Tigre) as contemporary Latin music set the mood for the bilingual event.
The students, many resplendent in gowns topped with intricately designed mortarboards, sat spellbound as Dr. Nilda “Nena” Peragallo Montano, DrPH, RN, FAAN, dean of the School of Nursing, delivered an inspirational keynote that urged them to aim high to achieve maximum impact. “I didn’t give thought to obstacles,” she said of her passion for serving the Latinx community and improving the health of vulnerable populations. Her perseverance led to her becoming the first Latinx nurse to receive an R01 research grant from the US National Institutes for Nursing Research and ultimately led to many changes and improvements to health care for the Latinx community.
“Cultivate a listening ear,” she urged the students. “You’ll learn from others’ perspectives, experiences, ideas, and insights. All of those will inform and enhance your own. Most important, do what moves you. Never stop learning, and never imagine you’re aiming too high.”
Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief Diversity Officer Dr. G. Rumay Alexander and Vice Chancellor Winston Crisp looked proudly on as CLC Director Josmell Perez presented each graduate with an Éxitos sarape sash, inspired by Latinx artisans.
CLC student leaders Carlos Mendiola and Ana Gomez were particularly touched by the event. “The Latinx community is so tight knit in sharing our experiences because we’re all aware that the culture here is different from what [our families] experienced,” noted Mendiola. “So when your parents are [engaging in chisme, or proudly gossiping] about you, make sure that they’re aware of [the perseverance that] brought you to Carolina, and now that we’ve graduated, make sure that the chisme includes what made you successful at Carolina.”
Gomez, who exemplifies the first-generation Latinx odyssey, was similarly proud of the familial connection to Exitos. “It felt amazing to celebrate all of our accomplishments with the people I’ve been closely working with. The excitement I felt to describe all those people [who have guided me] and to have my family there getting to know the things we all did was amazing,” she said.
“My father did well in school and wanted to be a doctor, but unfortunately, he was never able to finish high school. He came to the US from Mexico by himself when he was 15 and has been working ever since. [So,] for him to see me get one step closer to becoming a professional with the best education is a huge accomplishment in his eyes,” she said, proudly.
The Umoja Commencement Event
The Umoja event, which took place at the Sonja Haynes Center Auditorium, was historic, marking the first time that a commencement ceremony was held in honor of Black students. It was especially relevant now, as BSM is about to celebrate its 50th year. The event was a longtime dream of the Black Student Movement and the Carolina Black Caucus, who finally were able to see their vision become reality. Ninety-three participants and their families enjoyed the a cappella performance of the Black National Anthem by Black Student Movement subgroup Harmonyx and dance by Zankiliwa, a subgroup of Organization for African Students’ Interests and Solidarity (OASIS).
The keynote was delivered by 2014 graduate Johnny Lee Chapman III, who traced his odyssey from graduation to early failure, self-discovery, and, ultimately, success. Chapman, now a registered dental hygienist, photographer, slam poet and local soccer star, had sage advice for the graduates seated before him. Sharing from experience, he instructed them to (among other things) support their mental health; have hope as well as faith; take a social media hiatus and focus on decompression during their transition to the workforce; be disciplined, and perhaps most important, not to be afraid of failure, because it is the very foundation of dreams.
The event culminated in the presentation of sashes, provided through donations from various UNC departments.
“The Umoja event (named for the Swahili word for “unity”) celebrated the milestone of graduation for African Americans who have worked extremely hard to improve the Carolina community,” said Kelly Traynham, a rising junior majoring in Communications and a member of the leadership team that coordinated the event. “I’m grateful for all the diligence and support the class of 2018 has given throughout their time at Carolina. As we progress, we must value the journey and rejoice in the reward of success. The Umoja ceremony is yet another way to celebrate the reward.”