Black students at Harvard University are organizing a graduation ceremony of their own this year to recognize the achievements of black students and faculty members some say have been overlooked.
More than 700 students and guests are registered to attend Harvard's Black Commencement, which will take place two days before the school's traditional graduation events. It isn't meant to replace the existing ceremony, student organizers say, but rather to add something that was missing.
"We really wanted an opportunity to give voice to the voiceless at Harvard," said Michael Huggins, president of the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, a campus group that is planning the ceremony. "So many students identify with the African diaspora but don't necessarily feel welcome as part of the larger community, and they don't feel like their stories are being shared."
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Harvard joins a growing number of universities that have added graduation events for students of different ethnicities. Some have offered black commencement ceremonies for years, including Stanford University, Marshall University and the University of Washington. Some have added them more recently, and are also adding events for a variety of cultural groups.
Black undergraduates at Harvard have held similar graduation events in the past, but student organizers say the new ceremony is the first that's open to students across the university.
The May 23 event at Harvard will feature four student speakers discussing the hurdles they faced on the way to graduation. Every student will receive a stole made of traditional African kente cloth, meant to symbolize their shared heritage and to be worn with their cap and gown at the university's graduation.
Students have raised $35,000 for the event, mostly from schools within the university. Organizers say some university deans and professors have agreed to attend. A Harvard spokesman declined to comment.
"This event is truly open for everyone," said Huggins, who is graduating with a master's in public policy this month. "We really want this to be an open affair where people can learn about some experiences that often go unnoticed."
Students at Harvard also started an annual Latino graduation ceremony in 2015, and the school hosts a separate event for LGBT students, known as a "lavender graduation."
Many other colleges have been adding similar events in recent years. The University of Delaware held its first LGBT ceremony this year, joining dozens of others across the country. Along with its traditional commencement, Virginia Commonwealth University added new ceremonies for black students, Latinos and military veterans last year.
"They're small affairs, but they're meaningful," said Michael Porter, a spokesman for Virginia Commonwealth University. "It's really a social event, and one more time to get together as you wind down the college career."
Cultural graduation events are typically started by students, experts say, and often by those who feel marginalized on their campuses. They can be particularly important for black students, many of whom are the first in their families to graduate from college, said M. Evelyn Fields, president of the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education.
"When you're a little speck of pepper in a sea of salt, you can get lost," said Fields, who is also a professor of early childhood education at South Carolina State University. "They don't want to just be lost in the sea. They want the recognition that they believe they deserve, for the work that they've done."
Black students at Harvard represent 5 percent of the overall student body, compared with whites, who make up 43 percent, according to federal education data. Campus tensions at the Ivy League school have been heightened over the past two years after a series of racially charged episodes.
Harvard police called it a hate crime when framed portraits of several black law professors were defaced in 2015. No suspect was found. Months later, the law school agreed to abandon its official coat of arms after student activists protested the symbol's ties to an 18th-centry slave owner.
Organizers of the Black Commencement say it's partly meant to highlight racial disparities on campus. But ultimately it's a celebration of achievement, said Jillian Simons, a law student and president-elect of the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance.
"We want to acknowledge how far we've come," Simons said. "We want to say that there is a time to be jubilant and to acknowledge something that is positive instead of something that is causing heartache."