Before School Graduations, SoCA Ceremony Recognizes MA and PhD Graduates of Color

February 02, 2020
Group of students hold up awards

Twenty graduating MA and PhD students gathered to celebrate their achievements—and the family, friends, and faculty who have supported them throughout their academic careers—at the inaugural Students of Color Alliance (SoCA) Commencement ceremony, held on May 11 at the Joseph D. Jamail Lecture Hall in Journalism Hall. The event was designed to supplement school- and university-wide graduation ceremonies by providing additional recognition for graduate students from marginalized communities.

“This first-ever Students of Color Graduation is an occasion of great joy, but it is an event that arises from the fact that being a graduate student at Columbia is not a condition that is lived by all students as the same interchangeable experience,” GSAS Dean Carlos J. Alonso said in his opening remarks. “This event is a recognition of shared difficulties and obstacles, as much as it is of the shared satisfaction in overcoming those impediments.”

The student remarks were delivered by Jacqueline Altamirano Marin, MA candidate in Human Rights Studies and programs coordinator of SoCA, who thanked those in attendance.

“Our name on the diploma is a placeholder for the countless people who have invested time, love, and support throughout our lives,” said Altamirano Marin, who also planned the ceremony.

During the central point of the event, graduating students were announced individually by name, and ascended the stage to receive a certificate and SoCA honor cords to wear with their academic regalia.

In the keynote address, Alondra Nelson, Professor of Sociology, highlighted the uniqueness of the students’ paths—and the lack of diversity that persists in the academy—through recent census data: fewer than 2% of people in the United States over age 25 have earned a doctoral degree, and approximately 9% have earned master’s degrees; within those already small populations, students from minority backgrounds represent only about 20% of the total.

“You are special. You are rare,” Professor Nelson said to the graduates. “And all of us here are immensely proud of you, deeply in awe of you, and very much appreciating the added toll you have paid in accomplishing the extraordinary feat of achieving your graduate degrees.”

The ceremony also paid tribute to Devon T. Wade, a PhD candidate in Sociology and founding member of SoCA, who was killed in a tragic act of violence on November 26, 2017. Professor Nelson compared Dr. Wade’s activism to that of Ida B. Wells.

“He was one of the people most committed to social transformation and social justice that I have ever known. He also understood how important research was to his activist work,” Professor Nelson said of Dr. Wade. “While he never confused one for the other, he knew they were inextricably linked.”

Recognizing the success of the event, SoCA plans to make it an annual occasion, said Francisco Lara-García, PhD student in Sociology and co-chair of SoCA: “We hope this will be established as a rite of passage at Columbia: an integral part of the pomp and circumstance that makes Commencement Week so special for everyone.”