GREENSBORO, N.C. – During commencement exercises on May 4, Dr. Kwanza Jones told Bennett College graduates to continue uplifting and supporting each other and to always recognize their greatness – even when others don’t.
“I just want you to know that just because they may not see you or acknowledge your greatness, does not mean you stop being great,” Jones said to about 1,600 people on Bennett’s Quadrangle. “And just because the expectations that some may have of you are low; that does not mean that your expectations of yourself should not be exceedingly great. You hold yourselves to a higher standard.”
As a means to illustrate that Historically Black Colleges and Universities must save themselves, Jones shared a poignant story about averting a would-be abduction one day while walking home from junior high school in Washington D.C.
“I went over to the car just to hear what they were saying,” she recalled, emotion evident. “I went close enough that I was pulled in through the window of that car and they started driving away. In that moment, I knew that no one was going to save me. No one was. And that, sometimes you have to save yourself.”
Jones’ mother, Dorothy Wilkerson Jones, is a 1965 Bennett graduate. Her aunt, Brenda Wilkerson Hoover, is a 1963 Bennett alumna. After her mother asked her to donate $1,926 to Bennett’s recent #StandWithBennett fundraising campaign to commemorate 1926, the year Bennett became a women’s only college, Jones and her husband, José E. Feliciano, managing partner and co-founder of Clearlake Capital Group, made an historic donation of $1 million.
“There is a crisis that is going on right now,” Jones said. “We shouldn’t be here. Think about it. Bennett and other HBCUs shouldn’t exist. We shouldn’t be here to tell a story… Not everyone is for us. But we are worthy. And we are here. You protect each other and you survive together. And that, to me, is one of the main reasons why I said yes and continue to say yes to Bennett.”
During Jones’ speech, which was peppered with applause, she referenced a recent L.A. Times article in which Bennett Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Natalie V. McLean ’80 described the College as fragile yet fertile.
“I have another F-word to add to that,” Jones said. “Formidable. Formidable means inspiring fear or respect through being impressively large, powerful, intense or capable. Now, Belles, I am here to tell you, you all are capable. You all are intense. Ladies, as beautiful brown and black women of color, we know a thing or two about being a formidable force.”
Before beginning her remarks, Jones had the graduates face their family and friends to thank them for their support. In turn, she had the family and friends congratulate the graduates and she asked everyone to thank the Creator. Before taking her seat, Jones announced that she was giving each graduate a custom-made “Queen Moves Only” purse and a $500 gift card, which drew screams, shouts and hugs from the graduates.
“I know you’re going to find a way to make sure you’re not just using it frivolously,” Jones said. “You know that it is an investment…You have to continuously serve others, which means whether it is something that you are doing to help propel and push you to help serve others, whether it’s for education, whether it’s for starting a business, just know it’s an investment in you because we care.”
Bennett’s commencement was festive, with graduates and others moved to tears at times during the ceremony. After she spoke, Jones was given a painting by Brielle Miller and Alyix Jarrett of the Martin Dixon Intergenerational Center, named after Bennett alumna Dr. Joyce Martin Dixon. She was also bestowed an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by Bennett President Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins and Board of Trustees Chair Dr. Gladys A. Robinson ’71, a state senator.
Jones, a graduate of Princeton University, Pepperdine University School of Law and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, is founder and CEO of SUPERCHARGED, a lifestyle and personal development platform that helps individuals continuously improve their fitness, confidence and community. SUPERCHARGED integrates the mind and body to create the ultimate empowerment experience. Jones and Feliciano also co-founded the Kwanza Jones & José E. Feliciano SUPERCHARGED Initiative, a grant-making and investment organization that focuses on making a lasting impact in the areas of education, entrepreneurship, equal opportunity and empowerment.
In addition to her entrepreneurial endeavors, Jones has had a successful career as an entertainer, topping the Billboard music charts nine times, including reaching the Top 10. She has released four albums.
Jones’ philanthropy extends beyond SUPERCHARGED Initiative. Along with other artists, including Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Mary J. Blige, Jones has supported Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), a New York-based organization that seeks to empower girls and women who have been sexually exploited.
In an interview after Commencement, Jones said she was thrilled to receive her first honorary degree from the Institution from which her mother and aunt graduated. She and her husband said it was important for her to let the world know that Bennett College remains accredited and a viable option for young women seeking to attend an esteemed institution from which they can receive a quality education.
“There has not been enough said about the fact that Bennett is still accredited,” Jones said. “If Bennett is someone’s Plan B, she should make it her Plan A. Bennett is not just some small college in North Carolina.”
Feliciano said he was excited to be back on Bennett’s campus for such a joyous occasion.
“I’d like to reiterate some of Kwanza’s message,” Feliciano said. “There are no shortcuts in life. With the foundation of mentorship and education that Bennett provides its young ladies, they can achieve great things. We are very deeply committed to seeing increased participation of women and underrepresented communities in finance, business, in the legal profession and in STEM fields, and that’s why we think it’s so important, to preserve institutions like Bennett.”