In response to the current need to maintain social distancing, Clemson University’s Gantt Multicultural Center held one of its most popular ceremonies online May 6 to ensure graduating students from diverse backgrounds were properly honored.
Clemson’s Donning of the Kente ceremony aims to celebrate the accomplishments of students who have contributed to enhancing diversity and inclusion at the University. The ceremony recognizes the academic, professional and personal achievements of graduates as they transition into their post-collegiate lives. Rooted in African tradition, one of the most important aspects of Donning of the Kente is encouraging students to choose a mentor to present them with a Kente stole.
This year, the ceremony was conducted virtually via Zoom and still attracted more than 130 participants – a testament to the efforts of the Division of Inclusion and Equity and the growing diversity of the University. The first Donning of the Kente ceremony held in 2016 had 39 participants.
Lee Gill, chief diversity officer and special assistant to the president on inclusive excellence, spoke to the students through his computer camera but didn’t let that keep him from dressing in a formal suit and tie to honor the occasion.
“Over the past several months we’ve often heard about the unprecedented time we’re in,” he said. “But one thing about unprecedented times is they create unprecedented people. What you all have accomplished, to be able to go out on spring break and be notified that when you return everything will be done online and still graduate is truly amazing. You should be very proud of yourselves. The Donning of the Kente you’re being honored with today is really a testament to the fact that you are the type of individuals who will make this world a much better place.”
Kendra Stewart-Tillman, executive director of the Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center, thanked the group for their role in improving diversity at Clemson and noted that graduating at this specific time in history will be something they can use in their post-academic lives.
“I want to say thank you for who you’ve been to Clemson,” she told them. “The incredible enrichment of the diversity and inclusion climate on this campus over the last few years was all about you. There is no doubt you have lit a fire for diversity and inclusion here, and we will continue to run with it. Today we’re honoring not only your academic achievement but how you’ve made the campus more diverse and inclusive for all.”
Stewart-Tillman explained the Donning of the Kente ceremony is always one of her favorites of the school year because it’s an informal, energetic event where people call out and cheer for the graduates as their mentors place the stoles over their shoulders. This year, as she read the name of each graduate and their certificate with a quote from their mentor was shown on the screen, the cheers came a different way: scrolling across the side of the screen via Zoom’s chat feature. The chat popup scrolled non-stop throughout the nearly two-hour meeting with messages of joy and encouragement from the students and mentors to one another.
The Kente cloth was developed in the 17th century by the Ashanti people of Ghana as a form of royal regalia, considered to be a symbol of accomplishment and prestige. It is often reserved for special occasions and the colors and markings signify special meanings.
The Gantt center hopes to distribute this year’s stoles to students toward the end of the summer. They are black, denoting a rite of passage, with purple and orange stripes representing Clemson University. The Siamese crocodile, a symbol of democracy and unity in a diverse environment, adorns one end. The Gantt name embroidered on the other end carries a two-fold meaning: first, to honor the legacy of Harvey and Lucinda Gantt who were the first two African American students to desegregate Clemson University in the spring and fall of 1963, respectively; and second, to express the Gantt Multicultural Center’s gratitude for the graduates’ contributions to promoting inclusiveness throughout the institution as students, and now as alumni.
Gill closed his remarks with a quote from Benjamin Mays, an early civil rights leader and president of Morehouse College: “’Every man and woman is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done.’”
“All of you who are presented here today were meant to do something unique,” said Gill. “You will make this world a better place, and you have already made Clemson proud.”
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