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Best Commencement Address Takeaways for 2017 Grads

Though it’s really easy to get excited about graduating college, in can be very hard to find yourself moved by any commencement address. Think about it, you’re anxious about the future, maybe a little sad, have probably been outside for hours, and really just want to hear your name called and go home.  But as dry as conventional musings about how your class is “the future” (along with every class before and after it) can be, every year there are a handful of commencement addresses that genuinely challenge our expectations and bless new grads with palpable insight. With graduation 2017 in the rear view, here are four standouts from the 2017 season, that every new graduate should hear.

Bernie Sanders- Take Stake in the Future

Sanders’ speech didn’t deviate very much from his campaign trail musings, but none the less his self-described “dose of reality” is something all new grads should hear. The Vermont senator was adamant about reminding the graduating class that the future of the United States —and the world— is in the hands of young people. While noting that we live in what he calls a dangerous political time, Sanders was clear in his message that football is a spectator sport, but democracy isn’t.

Senator Sanders wasn’t wrong to point out the peril that our country is in, especially as it relates to access to education. The current presidential administration has shown little interest in supporting students stuck under the weight of crippling student loan debt or for students trying to educate themselves in a way that will negate that debt. For Sanders, the only solution is our unapologetic interest in creating a better and more equitable world, not just for ourselves, but for our descendants.

Oprah Winfrey- There Are No Limits on a Life of Service

Oprah Winfrey is no stranger to philanthropy. According to a report from People Magazine, the former TV personality is the most philanthropic-minded celebrity “by a huge margin”. In 2016 Winfrey dropped about 40 million of her own dollars into helping the Oprah Winfrey Foundation support programs that provide women and children with access to a decent education.

While Winfrey was elated that many members of Agnes Scott College’s graduation class are going on to serve with organizations like the Peace Corps and Teach for America, the mogul was quick to mention that her “whole life was a prayer” and “an offering in service.” She emphasized how first we must serve the self by fostering it into its most actualized version; something we do through our interactions with others and in our education. According to Winfrey, it’s after we elevate our own minds, that we can entertain a constant state of humility that shows our higher calling to us. Maybe you don’t have two years of life to give to the Peace Corps or $40 million to make education more accessible, but what you can possess is a drive to always find your passion, because it’s the passionate attitude, not just the laundry list of accomplishments, that can change the lives of those around us.

Betsy DeVos- Know Yourself and Don’t Back Down

Okay, so this one isn’t exactly about the speech per-se, but is easily in the pantheon of potential learning experiences. #BackstoBetsy was trending on Twitter after Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, was almost booed off stage during her commencement address at Bethune-Cookman University.  If there’s anything for the new grad to take away from DeVos’ speech it is the eminent reminder that at the end of the day you have to know what you’re ‘about’ and try not to let go of it.

In every sense the Bethune-Cookman president would’ve preferred that the graduates sit around and say absolutely nothing. No boo’s and no backs turned. There is so much pressure when people leave college to just take anything that’s thrown at them, but my advice would be to try and approach the after-college years like these grads did – determined and uncompromising. Uncompromising isn’t always a bad thing.There may come a time —on any career path— when you feel that an employer is testing your integrity. But in the face of something that represents what you think is truly wrong with the world, you don’t have to yield. There’s always room for people to pick a side and stand up.

Will Ferrell- Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

Will “we’re going streaking!” Ferrell is arguably the most left field orator on this list. None the less, his speech contains one of the greatest takeaways for any new grad — don’t take yourself too seriously! Ferrell explains how as an undergrad he would regularly abdicate his work-study responsibilities to wander about campus. After a friend invited him to “crash” a literature course, Ferrell stole a janitor’s outfit and cleaning supplies before strutting into the classroom mid-lecture. The actor told the professor —while in character— that he’d been sent to clean up a student’s vomit. Much to Ferrell’s surprise, the professor was amused and a month later pulls him over on campus to call his janitor act “one of the funniest” things he’d ever seen.

Ferrell ultimately colluded with the professor who asked him to come in and surprise another class with the act. After a few tries, the students caught on and would eventually break to indulge him. It was the willingness to put himself out there that opened Ferrell’s mind up to the idea that large groups of people could find him funny. For the actor, it was the professor’s support of his good attitude and craft that he used to “give myself [Ferrell] permission to be silly and weird”. For the new grad, that anecdote is paramount. Imagine if Ferrell had taken himself so seriously that the idea of crashing a lecture while in character was off the table? He’d have never envisioned himself as who he is today without seizing that opportunity to be vulnerable and creative. As a student leaving college, it’s important to never be so rigid in your perception of yourself or a space, that you miss out on dynamic exposure to new ideas.

Last Words

When we leave school, inspiration and purpose are the things we crave. To have all this knowledge without an outlet can be maddening. Sure, each of these speakers had something different to say, but the through line is to always seek out your passion and use it. If being passionate equals philanthropy, shaking up the political system, or just making people laugh, then it’s worth doing. The path post-transition isn’t always clear, but if we aim to know ourselves and our environment then there’s always a move to make.

Article by Raz Robinson, journalist and freelance writer, based in New York City and Philadelphia. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, email at razrobinson9(at)gmail(dot)com, or follow on Twitter @razrobinson.

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Five Years Later: Still Trying to Remember Trayvon Martin

On Saturday Trayvon Martin received a posthumous baccalaureate degree in aeronautical science from Florida Memorial University. It’s a strange thing to think about. FMU announced the award via Facebook and said that the degree was to honor Martin’s desire to become a pilot before he was slain in 2012. Trayvon would have been 22 this year; a fact that I’d never thought to consider in the literal sense until now.

It’s very easy to think of his story, in a lot of ways, only as the first of many stories like it over the last few years. Stories the likes of which will resonate with people as the beginning of #BlackLivesMatter and a turning point in radical black activism. It’s hard to understate the role that the Zimmerman verdict played in fostering this ‘new’ movement. In a recent piece for the New Republic, Peniel E. Joseph, the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, noted the vital organizational differences between BLM and their predecessors.

“BLM has moved beyond many of the blind spots and shortcomings of its predecessors, embracing the full complexity of black identity and forging a movement that is far more inclusive and democratic than either the Panthers or civil rights activists ever envisioned. Many of its most active leaders are queer women and feminists. Its decentralized structure fosters participation and power sharing. It makes direct links between the struggles of black Americans and the marginalization and oppression of women, those in LGBTQ communities, and other people of color.”Peniel E. Joseph for the New Republic.

Though the verdict served as BLM’s breath of life, what’s still so hard is to try and remember Trayvon Martin not only as the story behind a life that sparked a new wave of activist sentiment but as the story of a human being.6851500074_1211179209_b

According to FMU’s communications director, Ceeon Smith, the degree was awarded this year to correlate with the fifth anniversary of Martin’s death. Had the 17-year-old survived his encounter with George Zimmerman and gone on to college, he might have chosen this HBCU and he probably would have graduated this spring. It was  at FMU that Trayvon met alumnus, Barrington Irving (the first black person and Jamaican to make a solo flight around the world), and found the inspiration to attend aviation classes over the summer before his death. It’s also on the second floor of FMU’s library that the Trayvon Martin Foundation has found its home.

Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton, a creator of the foundation in her son’s name, is also an alumnus of the Florida HBCU. Alongside Trayvon’s father Tracy Martin, she accepted the degree on their son’s behalf. Accepting that honor, knowing that your child is gone and can’t even benefit from even a single thing associated with the degree is undoubtedly a matchless act of emotional significance for both of them.

Just as those who remember Trayvon fondly saw this story as positive, others who beat Trayvon’s reputation into the ground from day one were moved to do so again in light of the announcement of the posthumous degree. A fair amount of contempt spewed from the likes of, World Net Daily columnist, Jesse Lee Peterson. Peterson took to Twitter, and in response to FMU’s announcement, to put the onus of Martin’s death squarely on the shoulders of his parents.

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 5.08.02 PMBy pasting Mr. Peterson’s tweet here it should be noted that I’m not singling out anyone who’s opinion is of any verifiable relevance. I tend to relegate Peterson’s rebuild-the-family by “Rebuilding the Man” concepts, into the Hotep pool of obscure and dumbfoundingly misogynistic ‘how to heal the black community’ nonsense. But I would be remiss to not single out this sentiment as age-old.

Martin’s family, as well as a nation of people, spent months listening to talking heads like Bill O’Reilly and  Geraldo Rivera feign some kind of benevolence, while they tried to explain, explain, explain what exactly they think is wrong with “African Americans” and their speech, or their music, or their communities. As the Zimmerman verdict came down as non-guilty, millions of people looked at their TV’s in total shock while just a couple channels over you could probably catch Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter cheekily trading sentiments regarding what Coulter called a “pecking order based on race.”

If you supported George Zimmerman and this strange notion that shifting the blame within an infinite stream of anti-black character assassinations, should serve as a reasonable distraction from the fact that at the end of the day Trayvon Martin should be alive — then how do you not at least partially agree with Peterson, the hordes of racial violence apologists and people who think it’s time to ‘just let it go’? What’s funny is that Peterson remained completely silent regarding the murder of black teen Jordan Edwards last month. Doesn’t it strike you how the respectability politics in particular start to fade away when a kid is a straight A student, plays sports, and when the whole thing happens to be caught on camera? That is in no way belittling the circumstances of Edward’s death, but that silence reads like a resolve to only look at what’s obvious and never extend the courtesy of your full understanding of people who don’t fit the cliched mold of what it means to be “upstanding”. Five years after Martin’s death and several ‘movements’ later this is still the problem.

To drag Trayvon Martin’s name in the mud after all these years, with the same bland defamation, is cowardly and completely undermines the fact that black people who are slain by a racist social infrastructure in life, and by the media, and in death; don’t all have the same narrative driving them towards some near inevitable early-death-by-violence. What has to hurt the most is how even years after his death, Trayvon’s story and the people closest to him are still springboards for whatever political point someone wants to make (in a strange way I need to hold myself accountable for this as well). Now, so much time has gone by and it’s as if we’ve never stopped and processed what, for many of us, was our first large-scale encounter with that type of violence in this new visual age of relentless exposure. It was Martin, then Garner, then Brown, then Bland, then Rice, then McDonald, then Sterling, then Edwards, and then, and then, and then, and then…

It’s natural that I desire to use their first names in this moment, but like photos of Normandy Beach or the Holocaust, slowly the pain of remembering individual people forces us to lump them under an umbrella.  In this case the BLM umbrella. What is nuance when their names just form this umbrella that we know can’t protect us from sideways rain? Every week another name is added, the umbrella gets heavier, and walking forward stays hard. Aren’t you just overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people here? All gone for what seems like the exact same reason of blackness? How does that happen?

FMU isn’t giving Trayvon that degree to make him a martyr. Trayvon Martin has been a martyr.  The degree is a symbol of loss, a means of remembering his potential and how it was taken from the world for no real reason. It doesn’t matter what you think about hoodies or crime. Life either matters or it doesn’t and that degree they gave him is how they honor the person whose life and death showed to millions of us that his life really mattered. His story should continue to do so.

Article by Raz Robinson, journalist and freelance writer, based in New York City and Philadelphia. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, email at razrobinson9(at)gmail(dot)com, or follow him on Twitter @razrobinson.

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Read the Room: Betsy DeVos was Booed at Commencement

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is absolutely no stranger to criticism. But as she delivered her commencement speech to a packed room of graduates and families at Bethune-Cookman University, a Florida HBCU, criticism became a powerful reminder of the tensions between black students and the current White House administration.

According to a report from Newsweek, graduates and attendees were openly dissatisfied  — regularly standing with backs turned and shouting “Go Home!” while DeVos was booed. As the university president, Edison O. Jackson, waved his finger at the protesting students, threatening to send their diplomas by mail, the voices only got louder.  This reaction to DeVos as a commencement speaker isn’t unwarranted. Earlier this year DeVos decided to play politics, skewing the history of HBCU’s by referring to them as the “real pioneers when it comes to school choice”. 

A few days ago, the Trump administration made more enemies on HBCU campuses by suggesting that funding These Historically Black Colleges and a Universities might be unconstitutional. Once the backlash began, the Trump administration quickly followed the statement up with a pledge of “unwavering support”.

The current Trump administration was born on thin ice, especially with people of color and it appears the HBCU community writ large is taking every opportunity to let their voices be heard.  There’s little patience and even less tolerance for any insensitive statements or any hint of the administration failing to follow through on Trump’s promise to protect and support HBCU’s.

The discontent at Bethune-Cookmanan isn’t just about DeVos. It’s a reaction to an exacerbated distortion of the shifting power dynamics on university campuses. According to a report by the Huffington Post, 50,000 people signed a petition circulated by the Color of Change and Florida Education Association to protest DeVos’ commencement address.

The real question is ‘how did the university’s administration ignore that kind of public sentiment?’ Since the DeVos speech was announced, the stream of objections has been steady and unwavering. Coupling that with a somewhat tangible manifestation of dissent in the form of a petition, what was to be achieved by allowing DeVos to speak at commencement? The fact that the university president wasted his breath by attempting to bully the graduates, admonishing them for drowning out DeVos, was probably evidence of the same approach he had to the petition.  He wasn’t reading the room.

The dynamic of power on university campuses with the current free speech debate is exposing the way college administrations often lean on the side of radical tolerance rather than on the side of any type of visceral protest. Bethune Cookman’s president seemed to prefer that the students exercise some form of restraint and “decorum” in the face of the Secretary of Education, who represents an administration that a large number of the graduates probably view as —at a bare minimum— casually racist. Why is that?

The choices made by institutions of higher learning, just like the choices of our elected officials, should represent the desires of the populations they serve, no? If students can’t have a voice in the selection of their commencement speaker then the administration must be open to them exercising their voices and registering their opposition when the time comes. Most times students don’t care who the commence speaker is and sometimes the politics of the day make them really pay attention.  

If any college administration doesn’t understand that, then they must be content being aggressively ineffective. What is the point of the ulterior political posturing towards emotional restraint or wanton adherence to a status quo that supports absolute cordiality when presented with an extension of the White House who was willing to distort the very premise behind the school’s founding? Why did the administration expect any less from the Class of 2017 at Bethune Cookman?

Central to the HBCU as a concept, is the student’s fundamental understanding of the political significance built into their space. How the leadership of any university — where knowledge is supposed to be paramount— let alone an HBCU (where knowledge is paramount as well as a response to oppression) couldn’t respect that, is almost beyond reason. But it’s over, and the fight’s just gonna continue. How can it not? A few hundred miles to the south of Bethune-Cookman, at another Florida HBCU, Florida Memorial University, dissent will take another form, as Trayvon Martin will be posthumously awarded a baccalaureate degree in Aeronautical Science.

Article by Raz Robinson, journalist and freelance writer, based in New York City and Philadelphia. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, email at razrobinson9(at)gmail(dot)com, or follow him on Twitter @razrobinson.

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Job Outlook for Class of 2017 Grads

2016 graduatesEvery year the National Association of Colleges and Employers (naceweb.org) surveys companies to find out about their plans to hire new college graduates. The Job Outlook for 2017 grad report published last fall, showed that hiring for Class of 2017 grads in the fall expected has fallen 5.2 percent from 11 percent same time last year

On the surface, a 5.2 percent drop doesn’t sound like a desirable thing at all, but that figure can’t be seen as separate from the US’ current 4.4 percent unemployment rate. Right now the US is nearing what economists call ‘full employment’. This means the percentage of unemployed Americans isn’t expected to go up or down anytime soon. With a stabilized unemployment rate, businesses often have to increase wages in order to pay workers that are now getting harder to find. It’s about supply and demand.

This is good for new graduates because, despite the potential decrease in hiring, the report indicates that a number of employers who think that the job market is currently good for graduates is up almost 8 percent. Couple that with a high probability that wages will go up and 2017 isn’t looking as bad for a new grad. It’s good when finding employment doesn’t feel like a minefield, but new grads should remain aware of the serious competition for good jobs. Graduates with multiple internships, study abroad experiences, higher GPAs and campus leadership experiences will get hired first!

Article by Raz Robinson, journalist and freelance writer, based in New York City and Philadelphia. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, email at razrobinson9(at)gmail(dot)com, or follow on Twitter @razrobinson.


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Unemployment Hitting a Ten-Year Low at 4.4 Percent

It might be safe to say that this is one time in American history where unemployment hitting a ten-year low at 4.4 percent —even just on the surface— doesn’t provide many people with any real sense of relief.  While people are cautiously optimistic, new graduates have a lot to smile about in terms of the opportunities available in the job market.

shield-1020318_960_720This 4.4 percent is a far cry from numbers in the 2008 recession which saw an unemployment rate as high as 10 percent, April’s report has also indicated an addition of 211,000 jobs. Numbers like these are way off from the twilight of the Bush era (08-09) when the US was sometimes hemorrhaging a half million to close to a million jobs every month. Still, the transition of power between Barack Obama to Donald Trump represents the brief period in which it can be hard to establish who it is exactly that’s responsible for whatever employment gains we see in the US right now.

Are Trump and the month’s optimistic jobs report linked? Though the lion’s share of economists believe that the January’s jobs report was predicated entirely on the work of the Obama administration, that didn’t stop Trump from laying claim to them.  Job reports from February and March are on paper attributed to the Trump administration, but there seems to be some debate regarding just how much the optimistic ‘600,000’ jobs added is related to the state of the global ec170505093253-jobs-report-april-00002011-1024x576onomy versus Trump’s promise to deregulate and lower taxes.

In an article by CNN Money, Michael Arone, the chief investment strategist at State Street Global Advisors alluded to this when he said that increasing employment is tied way more to “a global growth trade than it is on the optimism regarding the Trump administration’s policies.” Even though the Democrats didn’t always have his back, the global economy currently being in a good place (a long term effort) might just have a lot more to do with Obama rather than the Trump related efforts.

Point being, what it is that Trump’s global and domestic economic policies will yield remains to be seen. Yes, the jobs report is optimistic, but the Trump administration’s economic policies haven’t sunk in enough for that optimism to outweigh fear of the damage a large scale political scandal, millions of people losing their health care will do or tough talk about isolationism.

Article by Raz Robinson, journalist and freelance writer, based in New York City and Philadelphia. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, email at razrobinson9(at)gmail(dot)com, or follow on Twitter @razrobinson.

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The HBCU Collective Meeting Capitol Hill Law Makers

A group of alumni, students, and activists dubbed the “HBCU Collective” took to Washington last Thursday. The HBCU Collective met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to make sure they follow up on President Trump’s promise to increase support to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

In March, Trump tried to solidify his commitment to HBCU’s with one of the almost 80 executive orders he has issued since taking office. Despite whatever unknown effort the President has put into acting on the order, the HBCU Collective seems unconvinced that the Trump administration will follow through on its promises.  Their goal is to keep the pressure on.washington-dc-500525_960_720

Trump’s first meeting with HBCU presidents is being written off by many as an Omarosa Manigault operation for a political photo-op. That could sound a lot more valid when we consider that almost two months after visit, the administration has shown no interest in restoring Pell Grant programs or protect the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program — both of which were discussed at the March meeting. As of right now, the Pell Grant provides African American students with almost $4 billion worth of aid every year. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education went as far as to call it the “cornerstone” of black higher education.

Unlike many of her predecessors, Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has next to no experience working in higher-ed, but her stance on public vs. charter school funding can be a gateway into understanding how she may or may not prioritize HBCU’s. DeVos has almost always seen competition as the answer to our struggling public school system — insisting that if there are more K-12 charter school options, the educational inequality exacerbated by their presence will just evaporate. The secretary maintains this position despite the fact that nearly 400,000 students in her home state of Michigan are stuck on charter school waiting lists while the public school system tailspins.


When it comes to the public vs. charter debate, DeVos has always come down on the side that punishes the struggling but vital system. That being the case, there is really no reason why should the HBCU Collective would believe the administration will, on their own accord, follow through with any promise made in the executive order. Right now prestigious HBCU’s with a long history of producing graduates like Howard University and Cheyney University of Pennsylvania are still struggling in the post-recession economy, and the administration is talking about solutions. Despite the economic difficulties however faced by these schools,  surveys say that HBCU’s are still producing some of the most satisfied and successful graduates across the board. For example, the Department of Education statistics state that more today Howard University and Meharry Medical College still account for almost 20% of the degrees in medicine and dentistry to black students. 

The timing of the descent on Washington by the HBCU Collective was decent, as the trip to Washington came just a few days after the Congressional Black Caucus announced a summer tour to hopefully galvanize black students politically. Despite pressure placed on congress by the HBCU Collective, the question still remains, how much vital recovery time are HBCU’s still losing without more government support? Beyond lost time, the help would need to come from a Secretary of Education with no ideological inclination to give it — and simply put, no one has that long.

Article by Raz Robinson, journalist and freelance writer, based in New York City and Philadelphia. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, email at razrobinson9(at)gmail(dot)com, or follow on Twitter @razrobinson.

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