Lehigh graduates process into the Donning of the Kente ceremony

Lehigh graduates process into the Donning of the Kente ceremony.

Donning of the Kente: A Personalized Celebration of Student Success

The annual pre-commencement celebration honored 44 students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Christa Neu

Soon-to-be Lehigh graduates, their friends and family, faculty, staff and fellow students gathered on Monday in Iacocca Hall’s Wood Dining Room for the annual Donning of the Kente celebration.

The pre-commencement event, presented by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of undergraduate and graduate students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds through heartfelt words and the vibrant colors of the traditional kente cloth.

Close-up of 2019 Kente cloth at Lehigh University

Donald Outing, vice president for equity and community, welcomed those gathered in the room with its panoramic views of the Lehigh Valley, and invited them to stand as the 44 graduates processed in. “Please do not hold your applause until the end,” Outing urged as the procession—and the cheers—began.

Provost Pat Farrell noted his appreciation for the ceremony, which invites graduates to ask someone who has played a key role in their Lehigh experience to speak to, and about, them before donning them with the kente cloth.

“[This event] gives me at least a little window into some of the stories...of how many of you got here, how you look at your time at Lehigh, what you take away with you,” Farrell said.  “... And those colorful, different, engaging, happy, sad, challenging stories that we all carry with us are in fact some of the most important things we can share with each other. So I appreciate, in addition to all that goes with commencement and the work it has taken to get to this point, your willingness to participate in this ceremony in particular, because I think it’s different from most of the others you’ll be involved in, and so special in its own way.”

Kwame Essien, associate professor of history and Africana studies, explained the history and meaning of the kente cloth, which was developed in the 17th century in the Ashanti kingdom in Ghana.

Legend has it that kente was first developed by two men in Bonwire, which is now the leading kente weaving center in Ghana. The men, Essien said, learned the art of weaving by observing a spider weaving a web. The kente was eventually adopted by the king of the Ashanti kingdom as a royal cloth and a symbol of prestige, reserved for special occasions.

“By accepting this stole, you are also acknowledging the responsibilities that come with it,” Essien told the graduates. “By this recognition, you are affirming that you are prepared to continue the great legacies of your ancestors. This stole is not simply some decorative memorabilia, but a call to action. This ceremony is a celebration of triumph over adversity. It is a celebration of the triumph of our collective consciousness and the recognition of the essence of our shared humanity.

Students at Lehigh's Donning of the Kente

“Dr. Martin Luther King said it best, and I quote: ‘An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.’ This is what your education here at Lehigh University has instilled in you. And I know you wear this kente today with pride and accomplishment.”

During the Donning of the Kente, Dahlia Hylton and Clara Buie, director and assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, respectively, introduced and shared a “fun fact” about each student, along with the individual who would be speaking on the student’s behalf.

The often emotional speeches all shared in common the immense pride the speakers had in the student about whom each spoke.  

Some examples:

Vassie Ware, professor of molecular biology, spoke on behalf of Isabel Amaya ’19, who will receive a degree in biochemistry: “I want to say that Isabel has enriched my life, and she has in fact created an atmosphere in our laboratory that has just been defined by collaboration and cooperation. I want to thank you, Isabel, for being an absolute gem.”

Victor Contreras ’20 spoke on behalf of his friend, Serge Ayinou ’19, who will receive a degree in mechanical engineering. Contreras shared a story of Ayinou’s planning a trip to Ocean City, Md., for a group of students who were studying at Lehigh during the summer: “The fact that he made sure that all of us could make it just shows the kind of man that Serge is: a man whose personality warrants all of his successes, a man that always carries a warm smile, and a man that never quits in his pursuit of excellence. During this ceremony it is usually customary to give you advice, but you are usually the one giving me guidance. So continue to pave the way for those who look up to you, and keep making us proud. I’m confident that after graduating, you will continue to lead with compassion, persistence and humility, and inspire many others, as you did with me.”

Aarsenio Perry, assistant dean and director of student engagement, spoke on behalf of Vladimir Castillo ’19, who will receive degrees in finance and marketing: “I’ve always admired how much you care. You constantly challenge others to explore other perspectives and to imagine the world in a different way. You speak up firmly against injustices and share opinions and thoughts, even if others consider them to be unpopular. It speaks to your honesty and integrity, and that will be greatly missed from you at Lehigh. But one thing that I’m proud about you beyond this achievement is your heart for people, which is something that I don’t think that many people always see … You’ve never wavered from your commitment to serve others and to do so with an energy that helps bring justice to their stories or to bring compassion to their suffering. You have big dreams and big goals, and yet you’ve never let it stop you from keeping the most vulnerable in our world and in our communities at the forefront of your approach.”

Lisa Comick spoke on behalf of her niece, Armani Tiyanah Comick ’19, who will receive a degree in international relations: “Congratulations, Armani. I’ve always said to you you are not a quitter. You never give up, no matter how difficult things may appear. You’re living proof that when you do your best, keep pushing forward, good things will happen. Your graduation from Lehigh University is a mighty good thing … You have matured into an intelligent, strong and beautiful young woman. We are very proud of you today and always. You are an inspiration to us all … Continue to be courageous, take strategic risks and create your own destiny. I wish you happiness and success beyond measure, and I love you dearly.”

Carolina Hernandez, assistant dean and director of the Community Service Office, spoke on behalf of Linette Caudillo Zavala ’19, who will receive a degree in biology: “I have to say that Linette is exactly the type of student that we aim to have on our college campus because inevitably, anything that Linette is engaged with, she leaves an indelible mark. And we all have a responsibility to show up and bring our whole hearts and our whole selves, and Linette does that bravely, humbly and above all, with a kindness that, to me, is inspiring.”

Jimmy Hamill, graduate assistant in the Pride Center, spoke on behalf of Laura DeFelice ’19, who will receive degrees in psychology and women, gender and sexuality studies. Hamill described DeFelice’s significant contributions to the Pride Center’s programming and services: “Laura, you are the embodiment of a brilliant scholar, of a fierce advocate, a truly remarkable human being, and it takes my breath away each and every day … But more than anything else, Laura, it is not your accomplishments. It is not the things you have done that define you, but it is the way that you have made all of us here feel. You have changed my life, you have changed Lehigh’s life, the Pride Center’s life. Thank you for everything.”

Following the Donning of the Kente, Reginald Jennings ’70, co-chair of BALANCE, Black and Latino Alumni Network for Community and Equity, shared a few words, and Tanairy Ortiz ’19 presented the Statement of Unity and Remembrance. Henry Odi ’98G, deputy vice president for equity and community and associate provost for academic diversity, gave the closing remarks.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Christa Neu

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