The 1998 Donning of Kente ceremony holds a special place in Yolanda Avent’s heart.

“I’ve since gotten my master’s and I’m about to finish my Ph.D. and I still say that’s the most influential graduation ceremony I’ve had,” said the Class of 1998 Hokie. “It was very much about community, fellowship, and kinship, and while I attended the ceremony for my department and the larger graduation ceremony, that’s the one I remember the most.”

Today, Avent works to ensure students have a similarly meaningful experience as senior director of Virginia Tech’s Cultural and Community Centers. As part of her position, she helps oversee the 10 cultural achievement ceremonies, including the Donning of the Kente, a celebration of achievement for Black and African American graduates.

“It’s really important to our students to have their cultures represented in ways that sometimes aren’t represented in the greater graduation ceremonies,” Avent said. “I think a lot of it is affirming students in spaces where they are not always affirmed and seeing themselves.”

The ceremonies include a spectrum of underrepresented populations on campus, as well as graduates within the recovery community and military veterans. Students are encouraged to attend ceremonies for the multiple communities with which they identify.

Thessa Bravo, who will graduate with an undergraduate degree in industrial systems engineering, said the cultural achievement ceremonies were a special way of connecting with and celebrating the deep connection between individuals and communities.

“It’s like being able to share a great piece of this graduation with your family members … I don’t want to miss out on that,” said Bravo, who plans to attend Gesta Latina, a Hispanic-Latino achievement ceremony.

Participants in a cultural achievement ceremony.
The American Indian & Indigenous Cultural Achievement Ceremony celebrated graduating undergraduate and graduate indigenous students on May 10, 2018, in the American Indian & Indigenous Community Center at Squires. Faculty, staff, and family were invited to participate and each graduating student received a special stole as both appreciation and recognition of the occasion. (Photo by Christina Franusich/Virginia Tech)

Yeabsera Bogale expects a similar experience when she attends this year’s Donning of Kente ceremony.

“I’ve always considered my community to be my family,” said Bogale, who will graduate with an undergraduate degree in political science. “It will be a very beautiful moment to not only celebrate our achievements, but to reflect on the past four years.”

Bogale said attending the Donning of the Kente during her first year helped her acclimate to being at a predominately white institution.

“Learning about the ceremony kind of helped me feel comfortable on campus,” Bogale said.

She’s since helped with the planning of other ceremonies and is looking forward to participating as a graduate.

“Just feeling the love. I think that’s the biggest thing, honestly. The love and unity. It really makes it feel like Virginia Tech really was home for me … these people made it home,” Bogale said.

Bravo said she was both excited for the Gesta Latina ceremony itself and the commemorative stole each of the graduates receives, which can be worn with their academic regalia during the other ceremonies.

“I’m looking forward to being able to show off who I am and be proud of it,” she said. “And I just think it will be such a rewarding thing to be able to show in my graduation pictures a little bit about who I am when I’m receiving my diploma on stage.”

Bravo said she sees the ceremony as an extension of Virginia Tech’s Cultural and Community Centers and their mission to ensure the success of all students, particularly those from underrepresented and historically marginalized populations.

“The centers really allow students to participate in their roots and not forget who we are. This is just another way of celebrating that,” Bravo said.

Reaffirming students’ identities in such a way during a time in which they are also growing and developing as Hokies is a top priority for both the centers and ceremonies.

“One thing I always said is the Hokie identity should add to your other identities, not take away from it,” Avent said. “There are ceremonies that really celebrate that and all our students’ unique identities.”

Virginia Tech’s Cultural and Community Centers are part of Student Affairs. The ceremonies are open to the public.

Written by Travis Williams