Queen Latifah Receives Honorary Doctorate at Commencement 2018
(Newark, NJ – May 14, 2018) - Newark’s own Queen Latifah delivered the keynote address at the Rutgers University − Newark Commencement Ceremony on May 14, 2018 at the Prudential Center. Selected for this honor by a committee of students, faculty, and staff, the hip-hop icon, award-winning actress, singer/song-writer, producer, entrepreneur, and humanitarian also received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.
“You are the testament to a powerful and enduring truth," Dr. Queen Latifah stated to the crowd, which included more than 1,500 graduates. "When we value diversity, when we share our individual gifts, our individual stories. We create the mosaic that is America at its very finest, at its very best."
An Award-winning Entertainer and Trailblazer
Born in Newark and raised in East Orange, New Jersey, Queen Latifah has earned a Grammy, Primetime Emmy, Golden Globe, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, three NAACP Image Awards, two BET Awards, two Teen Choice Awards, and numerous other accolades of national and international distinction. At the age of 21, she organized and became CEO of Flavor Unit Records and Management Company based in Jersey City, N.J. By 1993, the label had 17 signed artists. In 1995, her label won its first Grammy for a song she composed, “U.N.I.T.Y.,” which became an anthem rallying young women to self-love and mutual support, demonstrating the ways in which Queen Latifah leverages her talent to pursue the proverbial “double bottom line” of doing well and doing good by drawing attention to issues of social importance. More recently, she co-starred in the acclaimed comedy “Girls Trip,” which was chosen by Time magazine as one of its top ten films of 2017.
A Humanitarian and Philanthropist Who Never Forgot Her Newark Roots
Queen Latifah founded a scholarship foundation for low-income youth and has worked to mitigate home foreclosures in disadvantaged neighborhoods. These were just some of the reasons why she received Newark Beth Israel Medical Center’s Community Award in 2013. Queen Latifah also has been an effective advocate for international initiatives such as ‘Let Girls Learn,’ the campaign started by former First Lady Michelle Obama, that strives to provide support to 62 million girls around the world who do not have access to education. She is currently the spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s ‘Rise Above Heart Failure’ initiative. Other causes she has supported include the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Save the Music Foundation.
A Festive Celebration of the University and the City
Commencement festivities opened with a procession of the university’s leadership, board members, and honored guests, led by University Marshal Lindsey McDougle, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration. Rutgers University – Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor offered welcome remarks drawing upon examples of the accomplishments of graduating students that reflect ways in which they learned, matured, and made an impact on the world through deep engagement with each other and with the community in Newark and beyond. Citing Rutgers-Newark’s university-community assisted school partnership with Newark’s Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, Cantor suggested there was an apt metaphor for the graduates in the work that Shabazz students did when they assembled suitcase-sized solar power generators that Rutgers-Newark students then installed over spring break in Puerto Rico to restore electricity in several communities: “Lighting up the world—that is what this generation of change-makers is all about—making a difference for someone and creating your own new self at every step along the way—with a lot of help from your friends!”
Newark Mayor the Honorable Ras J. Baraka punctuated that theme in his own remarks, “…this is what America looks like, so beautiful, so many colors, men and women, many different countries, many nationalities, many different languages, many cultures, many religions,” Baraka observed as he welcomed graduates. He went on to exhort graduates to be courageous, citing poet Maya Angelou’s suggestion that courage was the most important virtue because it makes it possible to practice all of the others. “The world is waiting for you,” he said. “We need you to have the courage to be ambitious but allow your ambitions to be big enough to include other people…We need you to be courageous enough to challenge ideas that cause us to be separate, that create inequity, that develop racism, sexism, and white supremacy…the things that keep America from being the place it’s supposed to be…Make the world as beautiful as this room is today.”
Rutgers President Robert L. Barchi noted the historic context into which the graduates are stepping, not only for joining the largest class of Rutgers graduates ever, across all Rutgers universities, but for the challenges that the world needs them to solve. “You know the world you’re entering is a complicated mix of endless possibilities and seemingly intractable problems, but that’s where you come in,” he said. He urged graduates, “You’ve learned that success comes from having an open mind and learning from others…Don’t accept the status quo. Change your communities. No, go beyond that. Change lives. Don’t just go out and make a fortune. Make a difference.”
Student Governing Association President Adebimpe Elegbeleye, in moving, brief remarks offered in introducing the selected student speaker, reflected on her life journey from Nigeria to New Jersey, offered words of encouragement especially to students who might identify with her. “To every black girl who has ever felt undeserving, underestimated, unworthy; this is for you!” she said. “Remember, if a door is shut at you then you are made for a bigger door…you might fail but do not give up. It is okay to fail, what is not okay is when you let that failure define you. When you fail, get yourself together, dust your crown and take charge of your narrative.”
Student speaker Sheila Zegarra drew an analogy between students’ struggle to define themselves and the struggle of the character Harry Potter to find and develop his magic in the phenomenally popular book and movie series named for him. Reflecting on the extraordinary diversity and intersectionality of the Rutgers-Newark student body, she said, “People will ask you to explain yourself for that which you cannot help: your skin color, your gender, your background, your sexual orientation. You owe them nothing but a revolution, a revolution in the way we see and interact with each other. That includes the people closest to us…The real magic is in what we do every day to shape the world around us.”
The honor of introducing Queen Latifah was Executive Vice Chancellor Sherri-Ann Butterfield’s, who described the honoree as a “consummate entertainer” and entrepreneur whose combination of professional accomplishments and humanitarian action made her an ideal honorary doctoral degree recipient for Rutgers-Newark because she embodies the university’s ethos. “She is as committed to access and equity as we are,” said Butterfield. “She founded a scholarship foundation for low-income youth and has worked to mitigate home foreclosures in disadvantaged neighborhood.” Citing Queen Latifah’s enduring impact as a pioneering feminist, Butterfield underlined, “It is critically important that we understand that amazing black women like Queen Latifah and other women of color went, and continue to go, through countless challenges to obtain their power and successes and we truly honor her and them for their consistent fearlessness and fierceness, #slay.”
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