25th annual Rites of Passage Ceremony celebrates accomplishments of Black, Latinx graduates

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Photo by Courtesy of Rutgers University |

Earlier this week, the Rites of Passage Ceremony honored black and Latinx Rutgers graduates. The 25-year-old event grew from hosting only 100 students in its first year to now celebrating more than 700 students.


Earlier this week, the 25th annual Rites of Passage Ceremony commemorated the accomplishments of black and Latinx Rutgers graduates.

The event honored the community of black and Latinx students who represent perseverance, academic excellence and instill positivity in their communities.

The assistant director of intercultural initiatives for the Paul Robeson Cultural Center (PRCC), Jannah Handy, said the event aimed to highlight the acknowledgments and conversations that many times are unable to make their way into commencement.

The village, a term commonly referring to friends and families of students, were invited to attend the event and were recognized alongside graduates for the significant role they play in the overall success of student academics and life endeavors, Handy said.

During its inaugural celebration, the event hosted roughly 100 students inside the Kirkpatrick Chapel and now hosts more than 700 in a much larger complex. This is greatly representative of the growth the community has experienced over the years, Handy said.

“It’s really awesome that the division, Vice Chancellor (Felicia) McGinty, and Chancellor (Richard L.) Edwards really support some of the things that the cultural centers do, namely our ceremonies, because really it’s a chance to celebrate some of our students,” she said.

The University has time and time again shown its support for the cultural centers through the allotment of financial funds that help support events like this and contribute to the community growth, Handy said. Being present at the event only further demonstrates their involvement and dedication to the growing diversity here.

Recognizing the subculture of students that work endlessly to challenge their circumstances and rise to the occasion is the emphasis of these pre-commencement ceremonies across all four cultural centers, Handy said.

It is important to remember that there is always a place for students here, Handy said. The Paul Robeson Cultural Center, Asian-American Cultural Center, Center for Latino Arts and Culture and Center for Social Justice Education and LGBTQ+ Communities all include students willing and proud to identify as such.

“That’s what I love about Rutgers, I always say it’s as big as its opportunities. Once you get through the journey even if you’re not connected with the cultural centers we want to make sure that you are acknowledged because this is hard work,” she said.

Kiyanna Stewart, assistant director of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, said the yearly celebration is a rewarding experience for all members of the community, herself and others involved in the planning process needed to accommodate for the record-breaking number of students and their networks of support.

Opening registration for all students, communicating check-in times, auditioning student speakers, performers, and those willing to showcase their unique abilities, are all but a few of the many deliberations that went into planning the event, Stewart said.

Incorporating cultural elements into the event is crucial, Stewart said. Continuing the tradition built 25 years ago means finding new and old ways to intertwine student culture, identity and diversity while providing an all-inclusive atmosphere.

Traditional handwoven stoles embroidered with the scarlet "R," West African drumming and the careful curation of speakers all encompass the diaspora of cultures present, Stewart said.

“It means a lot for students to be here and completing their degrees. It’s a privilege for myself and the rest of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center staff to celebrate that and put it at the forefront because not all spaces within the University want to center student identity and experiences,” she said.

Dr. Shaun Harper, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the keynote speaker, said the ceremony and cultural affirmation of over 700 graduates from the University was a very special occasion.

While an attention to diversity is at the forefront of cultural events like this, a recurring theme of struggle and confronting the odds stacked against them at here was noted throughout many student performances and narratives, Harper said.

Keeping the spirit graduation in mind it is imperative that the thoughts of students are not shadowed by the celebratory emotions and resonate with the University as it continues to provide equal opportunities for all students, Harper said.

“Any black or Latinx student who graduates from a predominantly white university at which that person is terribly underrepresented in the student body as well as in the faculty and staff is extraordinarily resilient. These students ought to be celebrated for this while making structural, systemic and cultural changes at the institution that would make such resilience unnecessary,” he said.


Christian Zapata

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