Dennis Class predicts he will cry when he is recognized at SUNY Cortland’s Kente Graduation Ceremony on Friday, May 20.
Class, 28, a nontraditional student from the Bronx, N.Y., is one of 35 students participating in the event, which is of West African origin and commemorates a rite of passage from higher education. It will take place the day before Undergraduate Commencement, and is traditionally an intimate gathering for all ethnicities.
The event’s major symbol is the Kente stole, a rich, multicolored style of cloth that originated in Ghana. Similar to an academic hood, the stole is worn at Commencement to symbolize higher education’s pursuits and connections to the African world. (The stole is pictured in the above photo from the 2010 ceremony, in which Ann Cutler of the office of multicultural life and diversity helps a student.)
“Kente is very, very similar to Commencement,” said Seth Asumah, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor who chairs the College’s Africana Studies Department. “The only difference is that it’s a lot closer, a lot more family-oriented.”
Class does not have many immediate family members left. His mother, Sonia, died nearly four years ago — on May 27, 2007 — after suffering through an HIV infection. She was a single parent.
Class received his acceptance letter from SUNY Cortland just before his mother’s death. Under the circumstances, he was not certain that it was the right time to begin the intellectual pursuit that Kente celebrates.
“I asked her on her death bed and she wasn’t able to speak with tubes in her throat,” he said. “I asked her if she still wanted me to go to school and, as mothers do, she couldn’t speak, but she gave me that look.”
Early in his Cortland career, he achieved the academic success that Kente highlights, earning a 3.84 GPA during his first year. But he struggled emotionally and cried himself to sleep every night, he said.
Something changed when he was introduced to Robyn Forster, a senior counselor in the Counseling Center; Noelle Paley, the director of multicultural life and diversity; and Sharon Torres, a woman he met through La Familia Latina and now considers an aunt.
Outside of his grandmother, Nivia Gonzalez, Class was slow to trust most people. But the group of three — Forster, Paley and Torres — shattered his internal barriers. At Friday’s ceremony, Forster will bestow Class’ Kente stole.
An adolescence education and mathematics major, Class became a recognizable face at the College, participating in seven different clubs, working in Corey Union and serving as the play-by-play announcer for Cortland football on campus television and Internet radio.
The ability to savor educational opportunities on campus is one that Class shares with other Kente participants, including Tiffany Lewars, a communication studies major who worked as a student intern in the Multicultural Life and Diversity Office.
Lewars said she was shy when she arrived in Cortland but grew more assertive through her work with the Caribbean Students Association, her role as lifestyles editor of the Dragon Chronicle and her public relations manager position with Speak Magazine. Through all of her work, she tries to embrace different cultures.
“To have a ceremony that celebrates culture, I wanted to be a part of that,” she said.
Regina Morgan, a transfer student and a physical education major from Brooklyn, N.Y., served as the student chairperson of the Kente Graduation Ceremony last year. She understands the work and emotions associated with the event.
The eldest of five children, Morgan looks forward to sharing the celebration with her mother, grandparents and siblings.
“It’s not just: ‘Here’s your diploma,’” said Morgan, who served as president of the Caribbean Student Association and a resident advisor during her time at Cortland. “Kente makes you appreciate more what you’ve been doing for the last four years.
“My sister, she’s 16, and I’ve been away for five years. She gets to see, this is what my sister has been doing.”
Asumah called the Kente Graduation Ceremony a “complete celebration” that marks the transition from an institution of higher learning to the next chapter of a graduate’s life.
Next year, as Class student-teaches and coaches football in New York City, as Lewars interns at a television production company and as Morgan pursues a master’s degree, they will remember the intellectual growth of their undergraduate years.
“You don’t realize (Kente participants) are doing so much until you hear it,” said Morgan. “And that’s what Kente does.
“It just gives you a greater appreciation for your time here at Cortland.”