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PHOTO ESSAY | Edward Waters commencement

Published on May 12, 2024 at 8:03 pm

On Saturday morning at the Jacksonville Center for Performing Arts, Edward Waters University, Florida’s oldest historically Black university, celebrated commencement.

The 132 graduates had divergent paths to the stage.

They included a pair information technology scholars from Nigeria, a first-in-her-family graduate from St. Petersburg, a former Division I head football coach and the reigning Duval County Teacher of the Year.

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Saturday’s commencement was held Downtown because the university’s growth means its gymnasium can no longer seat all its graduates and their well-wishers.

Obiajuru Nwadiokwu and Adeleye Mesogboriwon received rapturous applause after EWU President A. Zachary Faison told the audience both earned straight As throughout their undergraduate years and will head to a master’s program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on full scholarships this fall.

There were four valedictorians this year: Nwadiokwu, Mesogboriwon, Alexandria Sherman and Daiton Pass shared the honor.

Alexandria Sherman is one of four valedictorians who earned a 4.0 grade point average during their undergraduate career. Edward Waters University held its 154th commencement on Saturday, May 11, 2024, at the Jacksonville Center for the Performing Arts. The ceremony was moved Downtown to accommodate the growth of the university. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

All except Pass were there to hear the love from the Tiger community.

When Edward Waters’ baseball team won its first Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship last week, it meant Pass, an infielder on the team, would represent the university at the Black College World Series in Birmingham, Ala., instead of his own commencement.

One athlete who was in attendance was Jonathan Kanyanga. His hoop dreams took him from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Kings Road.

Former Edward Waters University basketball player Jonathan Kanyanga (second from left) celebrates his undergraduate degree with his family. Kanyanga is a native of Kinshasa, the capital city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.| Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

“It means a lot. My father (Parfait) said education was important to him,” says Jonathan, who earned a degree in business management. “He taught us education was important. Holding this (degree) right now makes my father, my mom and my whole family proud. It means a lot for me.”

Graduation day at HBCUs is often a combination of tears, testimonies and praise dances and post-commencement strolls from the “Divine Nine” fraternities and sororities. Edward Waters had all of those in abundance Saturday in addition to a surprise performance from Jacksonville native Lil Duval, a stand-up comedian and musician.

As Faison encouraged the graduates to live their best life now that they have earned a degree, Lil Duval burst from stage left and performed his popular song “Smile.”

Patricia Johnson was in the front row dancing as Lil Duval saluted the graduates through song.

Johnson, who grew up in St. Petersburg and attended Moore’s Chapel AME Church as a child, says she chose Edward Waters because of its small class sizes and AME roots. She leaves as the two-time student body president with a degree in digital media production.

“I have not had the most perfect story in my life,” Johnson says. “I had to overcome a lot of things. To be here in this moment and to be able to experience it means a lot to me.”

Johnson is the first person in her family to earn a college degree. She helped up a pyramid in honor of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. as she received her degree that was earned in the memory of the late Olivia Denise Johnson, Sallie Mae Pelt and Keeoshia Edwards.

“My why lives in the sky,” Johnson says. “I’ve never run out of strength. My mom, my (great) granny and one of my mentees, they all passed away before they were able to witness this great moment in my life. I’m very grateful that they are in heaven watching over me.”

Johnson plans to attend law school in 2025. Like Brian Jenkins and Gustavo Guzman, she is going to head to the workforce before earning an advanced degree.

Shanika Johnson, Tameka Lewis and Brian Jenkins celebrate earning their master’s degrees from Edward Waters University. Florida’s first HBCU held its 154th commencement on Saturday, May 11, 2024 at the Jacksonville Center for the Performing Arts. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Jenkins is the offensive coordinator of the Edward Waters football team who previously helped coach Bethune-Cookman to four conference titles and two HBCU national championships. He earned his master’s in business administration on Saturday morning.

Guzman did as well. The 2024 Duval County Teacher of the Year earned his second degree from Edward Waters while teaching biology at Terry Parker High School in Arlington.

The stories of the 132 graduates are varied. But, as commencement speaker – and Edward Waters alumnae state Sen. Tracie Davis reminded the graduates – their experiences will shape who the are in the years ahead.

“When you walk in a room and you sit at a table,” Davis reminded her fellow Tigers, “you belong there!”


author image Reporter Will Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. He previously reported for the Jacksonville Business Journal. And before that, he spent more than a decade as a sports reporter at The St. Augustine Record, Victoria (Texas) Advocate and the Tallahassee Democrat. Reach him at will@jaxtoday.org.
author image Reporter Will Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. He previously reported for the Jacksonville Business Journal. And before that, he spent more than a decade as a sports reporter at The St. Augustine Record, Victoria (Texas) Advocate and the Tallahassee Democrat. Reach him at will@jaxtoday.org.

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