People of Nia: A cultural commencement

Student walks up the podium located in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union to receive his graduation stroll.

Julissa Garcia

Every semester, excitement arises within the African-American community during the graduation season. Joining with one another in the Memorial Union, the community comes together to do one thing: celebrate.

“This is a time for the black community to come together and celebrate each other,” said Sydni Harmon, second-year graduate student in education and “People of Nia” committee member.

The name for the graduation ceremony, “People of Nia” ties into the cultural significance of the celebration. The word “Nia” is the fifth principle of Kwanza, which means “purpose.”

The graduation ceremony began in 1997 as a response to low retention rates and high attrition rates of black students at Iowa State.

The ceremony also serves as a celebration of black heritage and an acknowledgment of the historical contributions black people have made.

According to Jerlando F.L. Jackson’s 2001 article on the “People of Nia,” data at the time showed graduation rates for black students to be lower than other ethnic group represented at Iowa State, with the exception of Native American students.

Jackson, who will be the keynote speaker of this year’s ceremony, stated in his article how from 1993 to 1997, the four-year graduation rate for black students was 9.4 percent compared to white students during the time period with rates of 22.8 percent.

Now in its 22nd year of existence, the overall purpose of the ceremony is to honor the accomplishments of black students, but also commend their success on the challenges of studying at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI).

In his 2001 article, Jackson said the ceremony planning efforts began through members of student organizations serving black students, Black Graduate Student Association and Black Student Alliance.

The strategy adopted was to focus on black students who were thriving at the institution and on track to graduate.

The two organizations plan the graduation ceremony every fall and spring semester.

While other universities have different goals and objectives for their ceremonies, Iowa State has maintained three goals for theirs: the first being the recognition of black students’ academic achievement in a black-culture commencement, the second being serving as a support for black students but encourage them to take responsibility for their academic successes, the third goal being a source of pride and respect for the contributions of black students and the last goal being to improve relations between the university’s administration and black students.

During the ceremony, students are recognized for the academic and leadership achievements.

Markus Flynn, co-chair of the committee and second year graduate student in kinesiology, said each year the ceremony continues to grow and get bigger.

“It takes having the initiative to allow it to grow and it always depend on how far leadership is trying to go. I want committee members to say, ‘I am planning ‘People of Nia’ and it is the best one Iowa State is gonna see,’” Flynn said.

From the beginning, the ceremony has appealed to student leaders and university administration. Some members of the administration continue to serve on the committee and its planning efforts in supporting roles.

“My role has been 100 percent support,” said Reginald Stewart, vice president of Office of Diversity and Inclusion. “I want it to continue be student-driven, but I am always here for support. I want the committee members to focus on content, while the Office of Diversity and Inclusion provided funding this year.”

Stewart said he has a first-hand account of how meaningful the graduation ceremonies can be as he participated in one during his undergraduate studies.

“One of my proudest items that I keep in my office is my certificate from my very own black student ceremony I attended at my university. I still recall the stories and the great experiences I had when I attended,” Stewart said.

For a few of the committee members, planning this year’s ceremony has been meaningful as they plan to participate as graduating students, too.

“It is surreal that this is happening as three out of the five us committee members will also be celebrated as graduates at this event,” Harmon said. “It is hard to picture myself into it, with all this planning but it has allowed me to make sure people will enjoy the event.”

While the ceremony has seen growth throughout the years, the ceremony still is not widely known about across Iowa State’s campus. For Flynn, he hopes the efforts from the committee and this year’s event can help end the lack of awareness.

“I want every black student at Iowa State to know about this event. I want younger students to look forward to it when they graduate and I want the event to be too big for the Great Hall,” Flynn said.

The graduation ceremony will take place at 6 p.m. May 10 in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union.

Following the ceremony there will be a live musical performance, a live DJ and reception.