By Heather Kays
NEWARK, NJ – Queen Latifah returned to her hometown of Newark Monday to deliver the keynote address at Rutgers University—Newark, where she stressed the importance of diversity and remembering where you come from and civic responsibility.
At the commencement, where 2,977 students received degrees, Latifah was presented with an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree not only for her contributions as a performer but also for her efforts and a humanitarian and philanthropist.
“It is patently evident she is a woman who hasn’t forgotten where she came from,” said Executive Vice Chancellor Sherri-Ann Butterfield as she awarded the degree and announced Latifah.
Latifah was honored for being considered one of hip-hop’s pioneering feminists, for starting a scholarship for low-income youth and working to mitigate home foreclosures in disadvantaged neighborhoods, for advocating for “Let Girls Learn” and for working with and several other charities.
“I’m touched that you asked me to be your commencement speaker. And what a class you are and what a university this is,” said the hip-hop icon, actress, singer, songwriter, producer, entrepreneur and philanthropist. “Black, brown, Asian, Caucasian, immigrants, the children of immigrants, be proud that 18 years running U.S. News and World Report has rated Rutgers Newark as the most diverse university in the United States.”
Latifah said that though her home sometimes gets a bad rap that today’s Newark is stirring again and that the city’s greatest export has always been and continues to be the people.
“You are the testament to a powerful and enduring truth,” said Latifah. “When we value diversity, when we share individual gifts, our individual stories, we create the mosaic that is America at its very finest, at it’s very best.”
She encouraged the graduates to learn to make their own kind of music and to carry the lessons they learned at home with them.
“I’m coming home. I’m a Jersey girl born and bred,” said Latifah. “Born right here in Newark. I could not be more proud to be one of Newark’s own today. This is home. Home with its grit and graffiti and greatness. The streets and steel and strength. These boulevards, these bricks and this brilliance. Home is the fire that fuels our creative collective spirit.”
Latifah told the Rutgers graduates that a responsibility to Rutgers and to their homes to contribute to the world they live in.
“Never forget where you came from,” said Latifah. “Home is what shapes you, but you have a responsibility to your home too. Be a citizen. Get involved. Give back. Pay it forward. Take a chance on that next kid who comes along the way the way somebody took a chance on you. The way somebody took a chance on me. Share your time. Be a mentor.”
Rutgers Chancellor Nancy Cantor addressed the graduates and their families and friends, by thanking them for spreading sunlight at the university and welcoming them to shine that light on the world. Cantor spoke of one student who was wrongfully accused of a crime and then went on the earn his degree. She also highlighted several important projects Rutgers students worked on to make Newark and even other countries better than they were before.
“Life keeps us busy recreating ourselves,” said Cantor, referring to one student’s project. “Think about it. How many phases have you been through in life? We think we’re made, done, shaped, finished. We’ll have more ridiculous former selves to laugh at.”
A common thread existed in the speeches – the importance for embracing diversity and acting a positive for inclusion and equity.
Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka spoke to the Rutgers Newark class and said he wished he could show President Trump the diversity and beauty filling the Prudential Center on Lafayette St Monday.
“Let him know that this is what America looks like. So beautiful,” said Baraka, adding this importance of diversity and students fighting against injustices such as racism. “The world is waiting for you. In fact, the world needs you. We need you to be courageous.”
Robert L. Barchi, president of the university, referenced Charles Dickens and said students witnessed the best of times and the worst of times because they witnessed both great social change and intolerance and cynicism.
“We are confident that Rutgers—Newark has prepared you well,” said Barchi. “You’ve learned that success comes from looking at the world with an open mind. Do not accept the status quo.”
Student speaker Adebimpe Elegbeleye who served as student council president encouraged her fellow graduates to be brave.
“It is okay to fail but it is not okay to let that failure define you,” said Elegbeleye. “No one is more deserving than you. So, dominate.”
Shiela Zegarra, another graduating student speaker who came to the U.S. at the age of 4 and identified as a DREAMer, explained her journey of self-discovery of struggling with her political identity and whether she was American.
“As the years went by the question what makes you American hit me in the face over and over again. By my peers, by strangers who spat at it and by myself,” said Zegarra. “Although I used to fight my own quiet war, one day I dared to ask back define American. Since then I have realized there’s a lot of power in not settling for injustice in your own backyard. There’s a lot of power as you see that there’s a very thin veil separating us as being treated as equals.
“People will ask you to explain yourself for that which you cannot help. Your background, your skin color, your sexual orientation, your gender, your religion and you owe them nothing but a revolution. A revolution in the way that we see and interact with each other,” Zegarra said, to cheers from the audience.