St. Augustine's and its grads seek bright futures

kjahner@newsobserver.comMay 4, 2014 

— “Stay grateful. … Life will get better.”

Commencement speaker Darryl Scriven recounted those words from his mother as a theme of his message to the graduating class of St. Augustine’s University on Sunday. He could have been speaking to the school itself, which has struggled through leadership and financial turmoil this year.

But as St. Aug’s class of 2014 graduated in a ceremony on the Raleigh campus, many expressed faith in their school, its ability to rebound and their own futures as graduates.

Perfect, sunny weather greeted the occasion, with a few grumbles over the age-old mismatch of graduation robes over formal wear on a late spring day.

Student body President David Frazier addressed his peers seated in the campus quadrangle along with faculty and hundreds of family members and friends. The Fredricksburg, Va., native went through four years of ROTC and studied criminal justice. Though his parents and brothers are officers in the military, he will be the first to enter the service as a commissioned officer. He plans to work for the military police in Fort Bliss, Texas.

With plenty of enthusiasm and a handful of jokes, including a reference to the long lines to register for classes, he engaged his cohort. He spoke about how they had overcome the “statistical stereotype” of African-Americans graduating college, and then named a list of classmates and the accomplishments they would make in their respective fields: engineering, education, business and others.

He intends, he later said, to use his Army career as a steppingstone toward becoming an FBI special agent.

“Now it’s our turn to make an improvement on this world,” he said, just before quoting Nelson Mandela calling education “the most powerful weapon.”

By the numbers: The university honored 205 graduates Sunday.

Commencement address: Scriven grew up in public housing in Jacksonville, Fla., and went on to earn a scholarship at Florida A&M University and a master’s and doctorate in philosophy at Purdue University, the first black Ph.D. in the discipline in the school’s history.

He had earned an engineering degree as an undergraduate despite initially failing algebra in eighth grade. That was when his mother told him to remain grateful, and that if he kept working hard his life would get better.

Scriven said he used the failure to fuel his future.

During his sophomore year, he moved his mother and sister to Tallahassee, Fla., so he could take care of her after she had a stroke.

“She wouldn’t have put me in a nursing home,” he said.

The author of seven books, he has retired from full-time teaching but delivers dozens of lectures and speeches worldwide each year.

In the air: With the board of trustees behind him, interim President Everett Ward acknowledged former President Dianne Suber, who had been forced out in early April after she announced her plans to retire in May.

No direct mention was made of the university’s financial problems.

But the issue did seep through. Ward, who donated $10,000 upon being appointed, mentioned the importance of financial contributions. Even Scriven mentioned it in his closing.

“If you want your degree to stay strong, Saint Augustine’s has to stay strong,” Scriven said.

In a pledge to represent the school well, among other promises of integrity, students also repeated a pledge to contribute financially to the degree they are able.

Looking back: Students generally said positive things about the efforts and quality of their professors and career services employees. They felt the school had a reputation problem as much as anything, and that the school is moving back in the right direction.

“You can let (the troubles bother you) if you want to,” said Kenishea Donaldson, an engineering graduate with an internship lined up at Princeton University, and who wants to earn a Ph.D. in industrial engineering. “I don’t fail because everything isn’t perfect.”

In general, the students spoke about positive experiences at the campus just outside downtown.

“I made some of the best friends in my life here,” said Joshua Easter, a St. Aug’s baseball player who next year will be a teacher assistant for students with autism in his native Chicago area. “I have faith in the people here. The people who like it and take advantage are really close. I plan to give back (when I’m able).”

All in the family: Desmond Delany feels an even tighter connection to the school than some of his classmates might. His father graduated there in 1988. His grandfather, also in attendance, not only graduated from Saint Augustine’s in 1941, he was also born on the campus 94 years ago.

The ties go beyond three generations, too. Delany’s great-great-grandfather was Bishop Henry Beard Delany, the second black elected bishop of the Episcopal Church. He attended St. Augustine’s in the 1880s and taught carpentry and masonry there until 1908.

“We’ve kind of built this place,” Delany said after his family prodded him to note the legacy.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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