UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Graduating members of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) at Penn State Law in University Park were celebrated by their family, friends, peers, and professors at the annual Donning of the Kente Ceremony on April 23, 2021. The graduates were showered with words of support and congratulations while sharing photos and memories during the heartfelt and intimate ceremony—a reflection of the positive influence and impressions they are leaving behind as they move into the legal profession.
BLSA members in the Penn State Law in University Park Class of 2021 are Grace Chikwem, Darren Daughtry Jr., Simone Fair, Solabomi Ladega, Saleema Muhammad, Kelsi Robinson, Karyl Smith, Tyla Swinton, Alexis Thackurdin, and Kyle Williams.
“It was an honor to participate in this year’s deeply moving Donning of the Kente Ceremony,” said Dr. Hari M. Osofsky, Dean of Penn State Law and School of International Affairs, Distinguished Professor of Law, and Professor of International Affairs and Geography. “This year’s graduates have provided tremendous leadership through the layered crises of this year and I am so grateful to them. I am excited for all they will contribute as lawyers and leaders.”
The keynote speaker for this year’s Kente Ceremony was Katrice Bridges Copeland, Professor of Law at Penn State Law. In her speech, Copeland described her experience as a Black law student at the University of Michigan, shared some of the obstacles and opportunities she has encountered in the legal profession, and provided tips to the graduating class. She also acknowledged the unique circumstances faced by the graduates—including the killing of George Floyd and subsequent push for racial justice and the challenges of being a law student in the midst of a global pandemic.
Describing the BLSA organization as the most active student group she has seen in her 14 years at Penn State Law, Copeland struck an optimistic tone despite the many challenges ahead.
“There is still a long way to go to achieve equity in the legal field—we've got work to do, your help is needed, and I hope that some of you will answer the call,” Copeland said in her address to the graduates. “I celebrate each and every one of you today for your extraordinary accomplishment. As you don the Kente Cloth, I hope you see it as a symbol of your solidarity, validation that you belong, and the responsibility that comes with being an African American lawyer at this time in history.”
As they prepare to take the next step and enter the legal profession, BLSA members can look back with pride at their activities and achievements during their time at Penn State Law.
“BLSA provides a safe space for incoming and returning African American and minority students," said Dr. Wende' Ferguson, Assistant Dean of Student Services at Penn State Law. "They offer programming that fosters a sense of belonging for students traditionally marginalized in the legal profession and they exemplify the mission of The National Black Law Student Association, which is to increases the number of Black and minority attorneys who excel academically, succeed professionally, and positively impact the community."
BLSA was recognized as Penn State Law’s 2021 Student Organization of the Year by the Student Bar Association (SBA) Social Committee and the Office of Student Services. In addition to continuing established programs such as peer mentoring, which can be influential in the retention of African American and minority students, BLSA also organized a beautification project at the Corl Street Elementary School, a school supplies drive, and a canned food drive.
Additional highlights from the 2020-2021 academic year include sending mock trial and moot court teams to nationals, hosting events to address racial injustice, provide support, and amplify Black voices, and spearheading the effort to create the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship Fund, which will provide financial support to a rising second- or third-year law student who is a member of BLSA.
“I was honored to witness this year’s Donning of the Kente and inspired by our BLSA student’s resilience, academic achievements, and care for each other during an extraordinary year,” said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar and Clinical Professor of Law, and Director of the Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic. “Their contributions to the legal profession will be exceptional.”
On an individual level, BLSA President Tyla Swinton will receive the 2021 J.D. Student Equity Award; BLSA member and SBA President Kelsi Robinson will be recognized as the Student Leader of the Year and was also recently inducted into the Woolsack Honor Society for finishing in the top 15 percent of 2021 Penn State Law graduates. The two leaders also shared their perspectives on racial injustice as part of the Voice of Penn State Law series.
“BLSA has and always will be my forever family,” Swinton said. “I can’t imagine where I would be or what I would have accomplished here at Penn State Law without the incredible support of my fellow BLSA members, alumni, close friends and mentors.”
Similar expressions of solidarity were echoed many times—by the graduates and attendees—during the Donning of the Kente Ceremony, showcasing the power of community support paired with individual excellence.
"The Donning of the Kente event was both emotional and inspiring, and I truly appreciated having faculty and staff attend to show support and share their own stories about the graduates,” Robinson said. “Being surrounded by friends, family, mentors, and mentees was amazing and one of the highlights of my law school experience.”