Graduating HBCU students embracing their university president.
Outgoing SGA President Cairo Harris (left) and Miss UMES, Mya Woods (right) flank UMES president Heidi M. Anderson after receiving their bachelor’s degrees at the 137th Spring Commencement at the William P. Hytche Athletic Center on May 17, 2024. (Megan Raymond photo)

For many of the 235 University of Maryland Eastern Shore graduates who received their degrees at the 137th spring commencement on May 17, it was a moment in the making.

Due to COVID, this would be the first time many of the undergraduates who started their college journey walked across a stage since middle school. The beginning of the pandemic caused many high schools to scrap their graduation plans in the spring of 2020. The result was virtual ceremonies, other non-traditional methods, or simply cancelling them altogether.

“It’s a super nervy or anticipatory moment for me because it’s technically my first real big graduation, but it also feels well earned,” said criminal justice major Chloe Ashby of Burtonsville, Maryland. “It feels like I’m celebrating for the last eight years instead of just the last four.”

After missing their previous moment in the sun, Ashby and many of her peers had to then consider where to continue their education. While many institutions closed their doors to new admissions at that time, UMES safely remained open for the arrival of its next kettle of incoming Hawks.

In giving the student commentary, Cairo Harris, a criminal justice major from Baltimore and the outgoing SGA president, reflected on the situation and how members of the graduating class persevered during the pandemic.

“Our path to graduation has been unlike any other, marked by challenges, uncertainties, and moments of profound resilience,” she said. “In March 2020, when we left our schools, jobs, and some of us, family, our lives unfolded in ways we could have never imagined. It was a year we thought we could not defeat, but here we are.”

As part of the ceremony, the new graduates received two surprise video messages from Vice President Kamala Harris and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, in addition to the commencement address from Maryland State Delegate Jheanelle K. Wilkins.

Wilkins, the Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, shared insight on the importance of advocacy and public service.

“Measure your success by the impact you make in our community and our world,” she said. “No matter what’s next for you, whatever the next phase is, wherever life takes you, there’s always an opportunity to be involved in your community and make an impact.”

Maryland State Delegate Jheanelle K. Wilkins delivers the commencement address during the University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s 137th Spring Commencement on May 17, 2024. (Megan Raymond photo)

For the students of various backgrounds receiving their degrees, their unique journeys set them on a path to the same destination – an accomplished dream.

For example, take Kamille Little of Dundalk. Coming to UMES allowed her to be part of the burgeoning Digital Media Studies program, which began during her sophomore year.

Little was able to experience her growth alongside the curriculum in its early days.

“Understanding that it was a new program, I got to see the start of the program and them getting their footing,” Little, who plans to pursue a career in digital storytelling and social media, said. “It did a good job of giving me opportunities including student mentorship, internships, and the ability to create intimate relationships with my professors.”

Witchell Laurier, who was born in Haiti before moving the United States, was already familiar with the school. After making a visit to campus as a high school junior, he chose UMES because it offered an affordable education.

During his time in Princess Anne, Laurier also excelled while balancing membership in numerous organizations such as the SGA, Honda Campus All-Star Challenge Team, and the National Association of Black Accountants, in addition to being a tutor and a student-athlete on the track & field team.

“I have mixed feelings about today because I’m excited that I’m graduating, but I’m also sad that I’m leaving because I’ve made so many memories and friends,” said Laurier, who will be working in Atlanta at the accounting firm Grant Thornton while pursuing his CPA license. “It felt like it was just yesterday that I came with my parents to check into Murphy Hall, and now I’m going on to the next chapter of my life.”

PhD recipient Nzinga Cardwell and her cohort in the educational leadership program started in the middle of the pandemic, but that wasn’t the only adversity she dealt with. She had to balance caring for her son who had a near-fatal medical issue.

“The faculty really supported me through the process and I was able to stay engaged with my colleagues in order to overcome those hurdles,” the Bowie resident said.

Cardwell, who teaches eighth grade reading and language arts, hopes that her fellow graduates reflect on and relish this special moment.

“Even though this is not my first go-round, I hope they know that this is the doorway to the rest of your life,” she said. “I appreciate being a part of that and witnessing that all over again. They give me hope for my own children and for the students that I teach every single day.”

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