Poet Nikki Giovanni inspires Class of 2013 at 85th Annual Commencement
With poet Nikki Giovanni delivering the commencement address to a crowd of more than 4,000 on the University Quadrangle, UNC Asheville held its 85th annual commencement ceremony Saturday, May 11, celebrating the 730 graduates of the Class of 2013. Those honored included the 466 May graduates, the 243 students who received degrees in December, and 21 August graduates.
The Commencement Address
Known for her civil rights advocacy, Giovanni chose a surprising analogy for the graduates – young Christopher Columbus. Separating Columbus from controversy over explorers' impact upon the peoples they encountered, Giovanni imagined how his mother might have felt as he prepared to embark. "She brings tears to my eyes when I think about his mother because she knows one thing – if she sends her boy out, then she may never see him again," said Giovanni. "She's like a lot of parents who encourage their children: 'Go to college, go get a degree,' knowing, that if you fulfill that dream, they will not see you again. Or that the 'you' that they see will not be the 'you' that they saw. You will change. But our faith in our children requires that we send you out."
Giovanni then urged graduates to "sail on" like Columbus. "He knew that whatever was there, if he fell off the earth, it was better than turning back and saying 'I can't do it.' I come from a generation that could not say to our grandparents ... 'no, we can't do it, we can't change America, we can't stop the war, we can't make a more just world.'"
Columbus, said Giovanni, "found a new world, and the world was the world of his heart, that there was something to do that had not been done. And I'm saying to you this morning, Class of 2013, you too must sail on. There are issues needing to be resolved. You must sail into that new world. If you fall, if you perish, at least you tried to do something. You must sail on into all of the unknowns and make a better world for every one of us. You can do this ... You must. We count on you."
Giovanni, the author of some 30 books for children and adults and one of America's most widely read poets, is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. She was presented with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by UNC Asheville Chancellor Anne Ponder.
Ponder also presented an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree to Asheville native Warren Haynes, the singer, guitarist and songwriter who first gained fame as a member of the Allman Brothers. Haynes has used his annual Christmas Jam concert to bring leading artists to Asheville and to raise more than $1 million for Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity.
After degrees were conferred, Ponder concluded by quoting a line from one of Giovanni's poems: "'A poem is pure energy.' That is how we, your family and friends, professors and all of us here at UNC Asheville feel about you, our graduates," said Ponder. "With great expectations, we send you, our newest graduates, out to make tomorrow's world a better place. We are so proud of you."