Noel Altaha

It's graduation season, and though that's a time to celebrate, one depressing fact remains the same: there's still a significant disparity between the numbers of white students and students of color graduating.

The graduation rate for white students in 2013 was 64%, compared to 50% for students of color, according to the U.S. News and World Report. And while graduation rates overall have improved for all students over the last decade, that gap has closed by less than 1%. For people of color who beat the odds to make it to graduation day it's an especially triumphant moment to walk the stage with their friends and family looking on, but that triumph is rarely represented in pop culture or in the images we're used to seeing of row and rows of grads wearing identical gowns.


We looked at some of the ways grads of color took things into their own hands on their commencement day this year to disrupt that monotony, and to celebrate their diverse backgrounds with everything from cap decorations to colorful stoles and Native American animal pelt designs.

The following interviews have been edited and condensed. 

For black students, kente cloth stoles (traditional African ceremonial cloth that's been used for centuries) are one way to acknowledge their heritage. From these grads at Bethune-Cookman University:


To these UVI students:


At Howard University, graduates wore their kente stoles for a particularly big commencement day: President Obama was their speaker.

Jennifer Onwuka, Howard University

For Onwuka, a broadcast journalism major from Houston, wearing an African stole was an acknowledgement of black history and her parents' Nigerian roots. 

Jennifer Onwuka

How was your commencement?

It was epic. I mean it couldn’t have been a better speaker for this year. I mean it’s the last year of his two terms. Howard University is one of the most prominent HBCUs in the country and it’s in the nation’s capital. Everything about it was just prime time. We were so excited, literally ecstatic about him coming to speak to us.

What did it mean for you to wear the stole?

It allows black people to show our pride in this achievement, especially the history with our culture and the lack of education in our own community. We want to show that pride with that kente stole. At Howard we call it the African stole and it’s the colors of the pan-African flag—the pan-African flag obviously signifies pan-Africanism and I think it’s just showing support for our own people.

Tell us a little about your family’s background

My parents are immigrants from Nigeria, so I’m a first-generation graduate. We don't have a prominent family legacy at Howard but I hope it is something that grows starting from my generation. I would love for my kids to go to Howard, or some HBCU. I think the education at an HBCU for a black American is literally unmatched. Because you just learn about the system through a different lens—through a true lens I would say.

What are your plans now that you’ve graduated?

The things I’m passionate about are the systematic racism that we live with. I think a lot of times race is discussed on a surface level, and it's well beyond that. The ripple effect is that there are tons of disparities against black people and people of color in America.

Native American and Alaska Native grads added eagle feathers, stones, and animal pelts significant to their tribes, like this University of North Carolina grad:


And this Inuit woman:


Noel Altaha, Columbia University

For Altaha, a White Mountain Apachee woman who graduated with a Masters of Science and Social Work, every piece she added to her cap and gown was significant:

Noel Altaha

How was your commencement?

This year kind of set a precedent. Myself and a few others advocated to the dean to have the Lenni-Lenape tribal elders do the opening ceremony and do an honors song. All of Manhattan was traditionally the Lenape’s traditional ancestral territory, so in the native way you always honor whoever's land you’re on. For the first time the Lenape elders gave us a prayer and a song to open up a the commencement ceremony.


Tell me about your graduation outfit. How is it connected to your family history?

I added an eagle feather and then I got the cap rim beaded with my nation’s four sacred colors. The eagle feather is, and I can only speak to my nations significance of it, but it represents your character and your integrity. I’m also eagle clan, so it’s also significant to my clan and the work that I'm doing for my people. It’s medicine and its sacred to us because it takes a long time to just earn one feather. It’s supposed to be that natives are the only people in the U.S. who can collect eagle feathers–there was a bill that was passed but that is not always the case.

This feather was given to my by an elder and it’s beaded around the rim, and each bead is prayed for. So there’s a lot of intent and a lot of meaning in that. I wanted it to all come together with my buckskin regalia that I had designed. The deer that was hunted, that was prayed for too, and so each piece was significant. I wanted it to be visible along with the colonial gown, the western education.

What are your plans now that you’ve graduated?

I came across social work to advocate on behalf of my community and different nations and to speak to the different experiences I’ve had as a native woman, as a researcher, as a survivor of colonization. Big picture, my goal is to use research and quantitative data to support the experiences and narratives of Native Americans. What I mean by that is, for example, I am a first generation college graduate and the first in my nation’s history to graduate from the school of social work with a masters degree. I’m starting to change the cycles of poverty, of violence, of abuse, of all of the different policies that have failed native people and particularly Apachees and Apachee women.

Noel Altaha

Latina and Latino graduates around the country had a lot of different ways of representing their connection to their families and cultures, from this queer, first-generation Latina Arizona State University grad:

To this proud undocumented California State University Longbeach graduate:


Rachel Lukes, University of New Mexico

Lukes, who wore a stole from La Raza, a Hispanic student organization, is from Albuquerque, and her family has a long history in New Mexico. She told me about why it was important for her to recognize her heritage while graduating.

Rachel Lukes

Tell me about your family history. What does that La Raza stole mean to you?

I’m half-Hispanic. My gradfather was actually one of the first hispanic conductors for the Santa Fe railroad, and his family came over with the conquistadors. And my great-grandfather was the governor of New Mexico before it was a state. New Mexico is just a really weird place, it is very culturally diverse. Albuquerque is pretty low on the graduation rate even from high school. A lot of people I knew slipped through the cracks, and I think it’s really important to celebrate that somebody with my ethnic heritage made it this far.

That was something that I wanted to represent especially during graduation. Each color on the stole is supposed to represent a different niche of the culture, it’s basically acknowledging that we’re not just Spanish or not just mixed with indigenous indian—it’s not boasting indigeneity, we’re a bunch of colors put together as one and we create this one raza.

How was your commencement?

We had a full-blown mariachi band that performed at the end. It was very New Mexico and very Hispanic. A lot of the convocation was spoken both in English and in Spanish so that all the families could participate even if they couldn’t speak Spanish. The keynote speaker was from Chihuahua [a Mexican state that borders New Mexico] and she actually just passed the bar–she’s a full blown lawyer at 22. She was undocumented and unafraid.

What are your plans now that you’ve graduated?

Right now I actually work at the UNM in the registration office and I’m hoping to apply for a masters program in January, an American Studies program about racial and social injustices in America.

These young women are just a handful of the diverse grads around the country blazing trails for others to follow by walking the stage with their diversity proudly on display.