NEW ORLEANS — Commencement weekend has begun for Xavier University of Louisiana, which is holding its first unrestricted graduation events since 2019 (due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
The festivities kicked off Friday evening with the 2022 Baccalaureate Mass and honors ceremony, held in the university’s convocation center and livestreamed on YouTube.
The uniqueness of the nation’s Catholic HBCU was on full display, reflecting African-American heritage in the choir’s gospel stylings throughout the liturgy, and the dozens of kente-stoled Black students among the throng of honorees.
Among those present in the procession alongside students and faculty were several local Black clergy, including Deacon Harold Vincent Sr.—the longtime pastoral minister at XULA—and a number of Black and African-American priests, including Fr Ajani Gibson, the evening’s celebrant.
“Allow for that same Jesus who brought you to this moment to carry you to the next level, to the next chapter,” he said during his homily.
“Your story is not ended in this moment, but a new chapter is about to begin.”
The ceremony, a return to normalcy for students whose last two-and-a-half years of school—more than half their time at XULA, in most cases—have been anything but, interrupted by a global pandemic, hurricanes, bomb threats, on top of the usual travails of academic life.
Last week, the university announced the final details for this weekend’s events, in some ways marking a new chapter for the school as well as the graduating students.
After Friday’s Mass, students were feted with presentations of their various honors by XULA’s vice president of student affairs Dr. Curtis Wright.
“I’m sure four years ago, we did not imagine that we would all be sitting here today wearing masks; we would know nothing about something called ‘Zoom’, or virtual learning or any of these things that we’ve had to accomplish,” he said.
“You wouldn’t have assumed that there would be threats brought against our beloved institution because of White rage and folks who did not want to be in spaces that affirm Black excellence. But yet we are here, and for that, I am so proud of you.”
Monetary awards for service and leadership were presented both from the XULA administration, as well as from Black fraternities, sororities and various undergraduate and graduate-level departments. The honors were in categories ranging from music to perseverance to Black uplift. The latter award, named for Servant of God Thea Bowman, went to one of the night’s most-awarded recipients, Amaya Sanders.
The national office of the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary also presented $4,000 in awards—including the Louis Israel Award to Noah Williams and the Gilbert Faustina Award to Dr. Ericka Lassair, both of whom were also recognized multiple times during the ceremony.
The university’s highest award, the St Katharine Drexel Award, went to Emmanuel Ukot, who served this year as president of the XULA Student Government Association.
“I hope the joy of Christ will remain with you and will always be contagious,” Jerome told the crowd.
The weekend continues today, May 7th, with the university’s commencement exercises, held in two separate ceremonies at the Convocation Center—10am CT for the College of Pharmacy, and 2pm CT for the College of Arts and Sciences. Both ceremonies will be livestreamed.
Four honorees will receive honorary degrees during today’s events, including the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson (‘99), president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund; Jerome “Big Duck” Smith, longtime civil rights activist and director of the New Orleans Tremé Center; Malcolm J. Broussard (‘99) of the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy; and US Senator Bill Cassidy.
Wilson and Cassidy will serve as speakers at the undergraduate and graduate ceremonies, respectively.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).