African Diaspora Graduate Celebration speech | University of Nevada, Reno
2018 grad: Find your own village, always strive for that human connection
By Elda Solomon
Graduating Senior, Class of 2018
(Editor's note: This is text of the speech 2018 graduating senior Elda Solomon delivered on Wednesday, May 16, 2018, during the African Diaspora Graduate Celebration.)
Good evening family, friends, faculty, special guests and most importantly what's good class of 2018!?
Today I am incredibly honored and humbled to be standing before you all and just looking around at all of this Black excellence! To all of our guests of today's ceremony, thank you for finding your way here and to the graduates-yall know all too well what it took to get here so let's all take in this moment ... And with that, let's turn to a neighbor and share some love today hug it out let's love on each other real quick.
So today I'd like to talk a little about the expression, "It takes a village". Now, many of us are familiar with the sentiment that it takes a village to raise a child and I stand here as living proof of the work of one huuuuge village. Unfortunately, a large part of my village -- my family -- could not attend today's ceremony but by no means does that mean that I am alone. My entire life is the product of a group effort. My standing on this stage today, the degree I will receive, and many of my successes as a student are like different tracks on an album with a buuuunch of features, no J Cole.
But this is in my blood, it's part of my DNA.
My family immigrated here from Ethiopia in the early ‘90s, fleeing a war-stricken and conflicted nation. Just in time for my brother Phillip to be born. That was 1994. Like many immigrants, they sought opportunity in a land that promised new beginnings. Two years later in 1996 I was born in Las Vegas. My mother immigrated here with her siblings, leaving my father in Ethiopia without a visa to immigrate himself. I spent the first eight years of my life with the belief that everyone had two sets of parents, because that's what I had.
The primary man in my life when I was born was my uncle by marriage, whom I adoringly call Daddy ... and that's still what I call him today. I spent the majority of my childhood wondering why my brother and sister and I didn't have the same last name. But in the Ethiopian language of Amharigna, there isn't a word for cousin ... only brother and sister ... so that's what we were. To the kids, my mother and her younger sister, my aunt, went by two names: Tiliqua and Tinishuwa mommy, which literally translates to big and small mom. I used to think that this is what having a step mother was. The term "immediate family" never really sat well with me. It was always too exclusive, never really describing what family meant to me.
When I was four years old, I met my father, a pale man who didn't look like any African I'd ever seen but looked more like me than anyone else I'd ever met. I hadn't met my father until I was four years old but nothing felt missing for me. I didn't get the opportunity to feel like I was missing out because the rest of my family worked so hard to fill in the gaps. And that, is the power of a village.
My family is absurdly large & loud. I know some of y'all know the feeling. The kind of large when you figure out that your cousin is literally not related to you at all. And you know, that 17-first-cousins-at-Thanksgiving type of loud. But when I came here to the University of Nevada, I felt at a loss. It wasn't that I felt as much homesick as I felt alone ... And I know many of us can relate to that feeling particularly on this campus. How strange it is to see such a lack of diversity in the community or the feeling of isolation that comes with being the only Black student in a lecture hall.
So I did what many of us did. I got involved. I joined organizations, made friends, and found my mecca -- The Center. Please raise your hand if the center has ever fed you. *Let's all give the center some snaps for putting on this beautiful ceremony and making sure some of us didn't starve*. Now raise your hand if you've ever skipped class to debate in the center LMAO. I know I have. I stand here because of the love and sense of community that the center gave me, and to other students who have been deemed a threat or distraction. For many of us, our Blackness has become an implication somewhere in our experiences here. Whether its being told that you shouldn't sit in the front of class because your hair is too big, or being followed every time you go to the Walgreens on Virginia Street ... the color of your skin is something that everyone will recognize about you, and sometimes it's all people will see in you.
But being here at the University has taught me that Blackness is complex and complicated, it's three dimensional and for dimensional and five dimensional, and it's uniquely defined by each and every one of us. So go be the weird Black kid with blue hair that watches anime and does yoga, or the carefree Black girl who doesn't have an inside voice and takes astrology wayyy too seriously, and know that your Blackness doesn't ever have to fit in a box.
Being yourself is always enough, and it's the best thing that you have to offer. So this is for the students holding it down ... for the students afraid to be too Black, students working three jobs, students who are parents, students who have never gotten to be children, for the students with no village, students with practice at 6 a.m., students that took 21 credit semesters to be here, for first-generation students, for the children of immigrants, and for the students who are the immigrants themselves. Close your eyes and take it all in ... you are here because you manifested this moment.
And this moment will be a memory all too soon.
So in life when you find yourself in unfamiliar or unwelcoming places, find your own village. For some of us this means joining an organization or a group but for many of us this might be as simple as doing the ‘lil nod when we walk past other Black people on campus. Please don't underestimate how important that nod is, or a smile. It's my way of saying I SEE YOU. The concept of human connection cannot go lost on us. The idea that we need one another is essential because we thrive when we feel a sense of community. We thrive when we feel a sense of belonging, a sense of love. The feeling of being supported and of having someone paying attention because "Attention is the most basic form of love". A human is not an island ... so find people that fill you and challenge you, that inspire and motivate you. People who show you different perspectives and tell you what you don't want to hear.
Because as students we need to be checked sometimes right?! And sometimes what you don't want to hear is that maybe you complain too much or that you yourself stand in the way of your own greatness. And to be honest, because we all need a little tough love sometimes.
I have a village of people here at the University that have guided and supported me, who wouldn't be in my life unless I sought their time and wisdom. Mentorship is a beautiful thing. And for me mentorship is about finding someone who lets me walk into their office, shut the door behind me, and cry about how my life is going nowhere. I have several people whom I would consider to be a mentor, and each of them offers me different perspectives and expertise. Each of them also understands me in a unique way. Remember that you spend all day being yourself, so you can always benefit from the perspectives of others because everyone brings something different to the table.
It's like whenever someone asks me who my best friend is, I always reply that I have a tier of best friends. I have a tier of mentors in the same way. An arsenal of people who selflessly give me their time, energy, and attention. And to my mentors -- I thank you and recognize your efforts to serve young students and professionals as they try to make a way for themselves. To Ms. Sheena Harvey, Mr. Blane Harding, Mr. Jody Lykes, Mrs. Kimberley Thomas, and to countless others -- thank you for your open doors and open hearts and for helping me find a home in Reno.
So my challenge to all of you, as you leave this place, is to figure out what you're doing to serve your community and find a village that is willing to serve you. I know that I feel a responsibility to the Black community, and I'm here to tell you that you should too. Understand that the degree that you have earned has come at a price to people you will never know, who sacrificed their lives and comforts so that we can have better. Black people who challenged institutions, who broke the law, compromised their bodies, traveled over seas, and who dared to exist. So remember that being here has always been a privilege and never lose sight of that. When your 12 page paper is due at 11:59 and you haven't even started yet, remember that you are still grateful to even have a paper to do. And be grateful for the roof over your head, that the sun is shining, and that a new day is always a blessing and never a promise. Practice gratefulness at every turn, and you'll find that your bad days are usually not that bad, and your good days will always be better.
To close, I'd like to impart just a few more words on all of you today.
First, know that you stand to learn from anyone and everyone you meet. Especially children. Thank you to some of my friends here who feel more like family, who inspire and challenge me and are wise beyond their years.
Don't let anyone tell you about yourself. Take the time to consciously learn and understand who you are, no one will do it for you. This means that you need to protect your energy, practice letting go, and say no to anything that isn't serving you.
Remember that there are a million things that you cannot control in life, but what you can always control is yourself, your thoughts, your feelings, and your reactions.
Most of all, I bask in the glory of this degree because of the selflessness and sacrifice of people who have always seen the greatness in me and who have fought to get me on this stage.
To both of my mothers, thank you for showing me that the there is strength in being meek, and that grace is beauty under pressure.
And to both of my fathers, who continue to show me that there is no replacement for hard work, and that resiliency is not a choice but a survival tactic.
Thank you and congratulations to the graduating Class of 2018!
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