Annual pre-commencement celebration honored 44 students, including Lehigh Engineers, of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Soon-to-be Lehigh graduates, their friends and family, faculty, staff and fellow students gathered May 13 in Iacocca Hall’s Wood Dining Room for the annual Donning of the Kente celebration.

The pre-commencement event, presented by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of undergraduate and graduate students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds through heartfelt words and the vibrant colors of the traditional kente cloth.

Donald Outing, vice president for equity and community, welcomed those gathered in the room with its panoramic views of the Lehigh Valley, and invited them to stand as the 44 graduates processed in. “Please do not hold your applause until the end,” Outing urged as the procession—and the cheers—began.

Provost Pat Farrell noted his appreciation for the ceremony, which invites graduates to ask someone who has played a key role in their Lehigh experience to speak to, and about, them before donning them with the kente cloth.

“[This event] gives me at least a little window into some of the stories...of how many of you got here, how you look at your time at Lehigh, what you take away with you,” Farrell said.  “... And those colorful, different, engaging, happy, sad, challenging stories that we all carry with us are in fact some of the most important things we can share with each other. So I appreciate, in addition to all that goes with commencement and the work it has taken to get to this point, your willingness to participate in this ceremony in particular, because I think it’s different from most of the others you’ll be involved in, and so special in its own way.”

Kwame Essien, associate professor of history and Africana studies, explained the history and meaning of the kente cloth, which was developed in the 17th century in the Ashanti kingdom in Ghana.

Legend has it that kente was first developed by two men in Bonwire, which is now the leading kente weaving center in Ghana. The men, Essien said, learned the art of weaving by observing a spider weaving a web. The kente was eventually adopted by the king of the Ashanti kingdom as a royal cloth and a symbol of prestige, reserved for special occasions.

“By accepting this stole, you are also acknowledging the responsibilities that come with it,” Essien told the graduates. “By this recognition, you are affirming that you are prepared to continue the great legacies of your ancestors. This stole is not simply some decorative memorabilia, but a call to action. This ceremony is a celebration of triumph over adversity. It is a celebration of the triumph of our collective consciousness and the recognition of the essence of our shared humanity.

“Dr. Martin Luther King said it best, and I quote: ‘An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.’ This is what your education here at Lehigh University has instilled in you. And I know you wear this kente today with pride and accomplishment.”

During the Donning of the Kente, Dahlia Hylton and Clara Buie, director and assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, respectively, introduced and shared a “fun fact” about each student, along with the individual who would be speaking on the student’s behalf.

The often emotional speeches all shared in common the immense pride the speakers had in the student about whom each spoke.  

For example, Victor Contreras ’20 spoke on behalf of his friend, Serge Ayinou ’19, who will receive a degree in mechanical engineering. Contreras shared a story of Ayinou’s planning a trip to Ocean City, Md., for a group of students who were studying at Lehigh during the summer: “The fact that he made sure that all of us could make it just shows the kind of man that Serge is: a man whose personality warrants all of his successes, a man that always carries a warm smile, and a man that never quits in his pursuit of excellence. During this ceremony it is usually customary to give you advice, but you are usually the one giving me guidance. So continue to pave the way for those who look up to you, and keep making us proud. I’m confident that after graduating, you will continue to lead with compassion, persistence and humility, and inspire many others, as you did with me.”

Read the full story in the Lehigh University News Center.


Sidney Yang and Lesley Chow

Bioengineering major Sydney Yang '19 (right), pictured with Lesley Chow, assistant professor of bioengineering and materials science and engineering, was among the students honored at the Donning of the Kente ceremony.