Though the skies overhead threatened rain, it never did. The overcast sky and mild breeze kept temperatures moderate and nearly 500 attendees comfortable at the 2023 commencement ceremony for Bennett College. Members of the Class of 2023 walked the stage to receive their diplomas during the ceremony on Saturday, May 13. Family, faculty, honored guests and Belles gathered on the Campus Quadrangle at the center of campus to celebrate the occasion.
President Suzanne Elise Walsh, JD began the Commencement Ceremony with a welcome, saying, “It is my pleasure to welcome each of you to Bennett College and the 94th Commencement Ceremony. Today, we honor and celebrate the Class of 2023. Graduates, this is a day you have dreamed of and worked for, and now it’s here. Congratulations.”
The ceremony, which began with the national African American anthem and concluded with the College’s alma mater, included readings, speeches, songs, and an impactful original poetry selection by Bennett College poet laureate Jasmine Faison. An inspiring address was delivered by Commencement Speaker Erika Alexander. Alexander, a talented actress, activist and director best known for her roles in beloved sitcoms from the 80s and 90s. She not only shared wisdom with Bennett’s graduating Belles, but received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the College.
Alexander shared, “You, young Belles, have matriculated in a micro college that has supplied you with the ideal tools for macro influence. As graduates of Bennett College, you are uniquely equipped to tackle whatever challenges come your way. Whether you’re headed to grad school, starting your first job, or jumping into some other adventure. Remember that you have the power to shape your future. The world needs your creativity and your unique perspective in this strange equation. In other words, be ready to give us all the tasty bits, those ingredients that you hide or ration, or keep sorting through. That’s what makes you human. Yes, even the bitter bits. That’s the stuff of legends.”
She added, “You must be unafraid to disrupt the stereotypical narratives that have dragged us down. You must challenge the status quo. I have a philosophy that diverse stories are proof of life and are an organic source of sustainability and I believe they are crucial for our future. These diverse stories hold within them the promise of a new generation. The future, like it or not, is here and we are witnessing the rebranding of America and the changing of the guard. Though that may sound threatening to some, historically, we know that’s how societies thrive through change.”
During the conferring of the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Vice President of Academic Affairs & Student Engagement Laura Colson, EdD said, “Erika Alexander’s career and life make her an ideal and appropriate nominee for an Honorary Degree from Bennet College. Attending the Philadelphia High School for Girls, she knows the impact that an all-women’s institution can have on the growth and development of a young woman. Additionally, her career shows how liberal arts can make an impact on stage and in the social justice realm. Her leadership, civil and global engagement are exemplified through her innovation and communication as an artist. All that she has done and continues to do is in direct correlation with the mission and vision that Bennet College works to instill in its students.”
Board of Trustees Chair Senator Gladys Ashe Robinson PhD, a 1971 graduate of Bennett College, brought greetings to the Class of 2023, saying, “Bennett prepared you to make a difference in this world. You, my Bennett sisters, have a responsibility to live up to the legacy of Belles who came before you. Do all you can to help the Belles you leave behind and the Belles who will come after you. Your responsibility is to look back, give back, and come back to the Bennett College that you love, and that certainly loves you.”
Deborah Love ’79, shared greetings on behalf of the thousands of alumnae and welcomed this year’s graduates into the sisterhood of Bennett College.
Valedictorian Isis Arabia Jordan lost her little sister and her mother-in-law within the same year. She and her classmates survived Covid-19, while balancing home lives. Life was mentally challenging, yet, as she said, “We all finished strong.” She added, “Each of us had our own struggles and obstacles that we had to overcome but nevertheless we persisted. So I challenge each of us to take what we have learned at Bennett and use it to make the world better, bolder and more brilliant.”
In her charge to the class, President Walsh said, “We have heard about all of the things that you have survived and all of the ways that you have made for yourselves. You are an impressive class. As Reverend Barber said last night, you are sisters for change. You have demonstrated that over and over again. I love that Erica talked with us about “those who control the narratives control the world.” You have never let anybody else control your narrative, as a class or as individuals. You have always told your own story in your own way. You are special. You have the power to do great things, don’t be afraid to use your creativity. You have so much creativity in this class, each of you individually.
I had an idea about what could happen at Bennett, because of you. You brought your ideas. You brought the great projects to the campus, you brought the protest and that was so important for making change, significant and lasting change that we so appreciate. And, I want you to always remember that you have the power to ask for what you want to make things happen in the way that you want them to happen, to dream about a future that makes sense to you. Bring your ideas and your creativity to the world because the world needs it. Bennett it needs it.”
Prior to Commencement, Bennett College welcomed the Reverend Dr. William J Barber II to campus on Friday, May 12, to deliver the Baccalaureate Convocation address for the class of 2023. A highly respected leader, social justice advocate and scholar, Dr. Barber spoke to Belles in the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel on campus.
“Sisters, Help Somebody.” That was the message delivered during the 2023 Baccalaureate Convocation by Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, President and Senior Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival. Reverend Dr. Barber delivered a powerful and inspirational message to Bennett College graduating seniors during the 2023 Baccalaureate Convocation held May 12 in Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel on the campus. The event, presided over by President Walsh, brought together faculty, staff, students, family, friends, and the community, to celebrate and empower the Class of 2023.
In his message, Reverend Dr. Barber said, “Since Bennett saved you, since you got this degree. You just ought to help somebody.” He added, “Because every generation needs agents of change who will serve humanity. Every generation needs people who say, with my education, I can be trusted to make a difference. We need Bennett Belles and HBCU graduates, who with degree in hand, will say my life is not going to be selfish and stingy; my life is going to make a difference.”
Reverend Dr. Barber’s connection to Bennett College was highlighted through the mention of his daughter, Sharrelle Barber, ScD, MPH ’07. Dr. Barber is Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, Director of The Ubuntu Center on Racism, Global Movements, and Population Health Equity, Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Urban Health Collaborative at Drexel University. Dr. Barber received her undergraduate degree from Bennett College, a master Public Health from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, PhD from Harvard. She is a social epidemiologist and scholar activist whose research focuses on the intersection of race, place and health.
The Baccalaureate Convocation served as a poignant prelude to the commencement ceremony, instilling a sense of pride, gratitude, and purpose within the graduating class. As these young women embark on their next chapter, Bennett College stands as a beacon of hope, nurturing students to become “Sister Change Agents” being champions of change.
During the Commencement Ceremony Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II also announced a $10,000 annual scholarship to support Bennett College graduates who pursue post-graduate study. The “Sister Change Agent Toward a 3rd Reconstruction” scholarship will present $5,000 each to two Bennett College graduates, annually. The scholarship was established in the names of Erika Alexander, Dr. Sharelle Barber ’07 (daughter of Rev. Barber) and Reverend Dr. Barber. He seeded the scholarship with $20,000 to fund this year and next. This year’s recipients were Nusayba Rochelle Guiro ‘23 (Summa Cum Laude in Social Work) and Kayla Diane Isaac ’23 (Senior Class President, Cum Laude in Biology).