McMaster University holds its first ever Black graduation celebration
'I felt like Black students were going to be seen, going to be heard,' student says
When walking through the halls and grounds and classrooms at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ashley Assam says, "just by being on campus, you don't see a lot of Black people."
That's one of the reasons people there organized, on Monday June 13, the school's first ever Black graduation ceremony.
"What it meant to me was just the fact that I felt like myself and a lot of other Black students who are really small in numbers unfortunately were going to be seen and celebrated," said Assam, co-president of the Black Student Association and new graduate of the Bachelor of Health Sciences program.
"To me, I felt like Black students were going to be seen, going to be heard," she said.
Faith Ogunkoya, manager of the university's Black Student Success Centre, organized the ceremony.
"It was important for me to bring the whole community together and to say, 'look around, this is your ecosystem of Black student success,'" she said.
The Black graduation ceremony was in addition to the school's convocation ceremony and included students, faculty and community members to celebrate the excellence of Black McMaster graduates.
History in the making
Ogunkoya hoped that students felt inspired by the support system that congregated at Monday's ceremony.
"It was very much about mitigating that social isolation that happens when you feel — in a predominately white institution — you're outnumbered, it's good for you to look around and see yourself," she said.
Ogunkoya said it took four weeks of hard work to bring the ceremony together.
"What was important was to make sure I brought together Black faculty members, Black staff members and the students themselves," she said. "I also made sure alumni voice was there."
The ceremony also included Black-owned businesses like Bliss Gelato and Afrolicious.
"The whole day was about celebrating and centering Blackness," Ogunkoya said.
'A good change'
Back in 1967, Dr. Gary Warner, currently professor emeritus at McMaster University, was the only Black professor on campus.
His presence and role at this week's ceremony was crucial for him and students involved.
As the beadle, which is carried out by the oldest faculty member, he said a few words before declaring the commencement of the ceremony.
He also remarked on the steps that McMaster has made in the last few years to promote Black excellence and presence.
Warner said he never believed that a Black graduation ceremony could take place, even as of recently.
"Even five years ago at McMaster, it was not something that I thought would happen," he said.
While he described it as a "moving experience," Warner said that diversity at the university has been a slow ride.
It's only been in the last couple of years that circumstances have taken a turn for the good — he believes the George Floyd protests of 2020 has "heightened consciousness."
But he said other decisions on campus have also been a driving force of change: McMaster recently hired an associate vice-president of equity and cluster-hired 20 Black professors at the school.
"That made a good change," he said. "You have a substantial body of people in the system alongside faculty."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.