Itanwa Orwinwa Celebrates Resilience of the Class of 2024

Group of students at Itanwa Orinwa

As a first-year student in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Gabrielle Pinkney ’24 stood in front of the VPA Alumni Wall in awe of the prominent graduates of the school whose photos were featured.

Four years later, she had the opportunity to meet one of those distinguished alumni, Taye Diggs ’93, who gave the keynote address for the 2024 Itanwa Orinwa (Our Story, Our Song) Program, more commonly known as Black Graduation.

“I was in awe that someone like him, someone who looked like me, once walked down the very same hallways,” says Pinkney, an Our Time Has Come (OTHC) Scholar who majored in classical voice. “He encouraged me and the fellow graduates not to be afraid to go against the grain and not be afraid to write our own story, even if it’s a little bit different. His words of encouragement to simply be yourself, even if that goes against societal norms, will stay with me forever.”

Diggs’ message of resilience in the face of adversity was particularly appropriate for the Class of 2024, a group who completed high school at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, missing out on typical celebrations such as prom and commencement.

“For most of my classmates, Itanwa Orinwa was their first experience of a graduation ceremony, so it was particularly joyful,” says Brianna Gillfillian ’24, an OTHC Scholar selected as a student speaker for the program.

Group of students at Itanwa OrinwaSurrounded by Black and brown faces, Gillfillian, who came to Syracuse from Kingston, Jamaica, couldn’t help but think that “this is what my high school graduation would have looked like,” she says.

Except for the setting. For the first time since its creation, Itanwa Orinwa was held in the JMA Wireless Dome on the Friday evening of Commencement weekend. “Participation has steadily increased such that we’ve outgrown several rooms and buildings on campus,” says Marissa Willingham, program manager for the Barner-McDuffie House, who led the planning committee from inception to completion. “This is an optional program. There has been a notable increase in student participation and in faculty and staff assisting. Empowering students to be a central part of the planning process, ensuring their voices are heard and that their ideas shape the event results in a meaningful program for everyone.”

Itanwa Orinwa comes from the Yoruba language from southwest Nigeria, meaning Our Story, Our Song. The program was created in 2002 by student leaders in the Student African-American Society to celebrate the achievements of Syracuse University graduates of color. Their mission was to create an annual observance honoring all degree candidates who identify as being part of the African Diaspora, including, but not exclusive to, African American, African, Caribbean and Latino students.

In addition to recognizing degree candidates, the 2024 ceremony included speakers and student performances. Pinkney sang the Black National Anthem, and a video created by Theoplis Stewart II ’24 featured step performances by members of Black and Latino sororities and fraternities and the Black Reign Step Team. Stewart is a student at the National Veterans Resource Center, where he received a certificate in advanced military visual journalism.

Graduating students were presented with authentic Kente cloth stoles, which they wore throughout the weekend’s festivities. Dr. Tanisha Jackson, assistant professor of African American Studies and executive director of the Community Folk Art Center, explained the significance of the gift: In Ghana, Kente is a royal cloth and its presentation is a loving rite of passage gift.

“Itanwa Orinwa is a time and space filled with Black joy and resilience. It was especially important to me because it is a celebration of all our accomplishments, a moment where individuals of color come together to honor our collective achievements despite the obstacles and institutional barriers present at a predominantly white institution (PWI),” says Takashee Ledgister ’24, a member of the planning committee for the event and OTHC Scholar. “In my opinion, it was also the most fun graduation celebration that took place all weekend.”

Ledgister sought to be part of the planning committee specifically because she missed out on experiencing a traditional high school graduation. “I wanted to play an active role in shaping this milestone into an experience we could all collectively enjoy,” she says.

In addition to Ledgister, Gillfillian and Pinkney, other OTHC Scholars who played active roles in the program included Kourtney Toxey ’24, who made the Land Acknowledgement and Aminata Sylla ’24, who gave the welcome and introductions.

Beyond Itanwa Orinwa, the OTHC community was well-represented throughout Commencement weekend. Four Scholars were selected as speakers for their school or college convocation: Leondra Tyler ’24 (College of Professional Studies), Mia-Marie Fields ’24 (College of Engineering and Computer Studies), Jared Dowling ’24 (Newhouse School of Public Communications) and Marangelis Uben ’24, (iSchool). Two OTHC alumni came back as invited convocation speakers, Oliver Fernandez ’08 at ECS and Raphael Richard G’12 at the School of Education. In addition, Fields served as Class Marshal for ECS, Pinkney was Class Marshal for the College of Visual and Performing Arts and Sofia Rodriguez ’24 was Senior Class Marshal at the all-campus Commencement Ceremony.

Says Ledgister, “Even though we attend a PWI, we have let our light shine oh so bright. Here's to a bright and promising future.”

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