UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The Black Law Students Association (BLSA) at Penn State Law in University Park held its annual Donning of the Kente Ceremony on April 22 to celebrate its 2023 graduating members. The ceremony, which prompts both a reflection on the graduates’ law school experience and a look forward to future success, was attended by faculty, staff, family, friends, and peers.
“The theme of the 2023 BLSA Donning of Kente was Black Excellence. The donning (or putting on) of the Kente stole is a rite of passage for BLSA students,” said Dr. Wende’ Ferguson, co-interim associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion and assistant dean for student services. “The Kente stole is a symbol of achievement and overcoming hardship. It pays homage to their ancestors’ sacrifices, reunites them with Africa, and asserts their hope and confidence in the future.”
BLSA members in the Penn State Law Class of 2023 are Oluwatomi Ajimatanrareje, Alicia Armstrong, Leilani Brown, Ronald Dorville, Michelle Miles, Raphael Ogbonna-Amu, Taylor Washington, and Christopher Wright.
“The Donning of the Kente ceremony is always a joyful celebration of the BLSA graduates, and I particularly enjoy the heartfelt tributes from family and friends who have tirelessly supported them,” said Victor Romero, interim dean of Penn State Law in University Park and the School of International Affairs, Maureen B. Cavanaugh Distinguished Faculty Scholar, and professor of law. “The Class of 2023 has much to be proud of during their time at Penn State Law, both as individuals and as members of BLSA, and we will continue to support them as they take the next step in their career journeys.”
The keynote speaker for this year’s ceremony was Dr. LaWanda Ward, assistant professor of higher education at Penn State, associate director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education, and program coordinator of the residential M.Ed. in Higher Education program. In her address to the graduates, Ward emphasized the importance of organizations such as BLSA as a source of support, especially while law schools remain predominantly white spaces.
Dr. LaWanda Ward addresses the audience during her keynote speech at the Donning of the Kente Ceremony.
IMAGE CREDIT: Andrew Gabriel, Penn State Law
She also offered several pieces of advice, including being open to new opportunities; being intentional about building the skills needed for your desired career role; and using your legal education to make a “transformative difference” in society.
“Your legal education positions you to contribute to the on-going quest for Black liberation and dignity affirming personhood for all,” Dr. Ward said in her address. “We learn in law school to be zealous advocates. Now is the time to continue the legacy of rebels in law.”
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
After the ceremony, several of the 2023 graduates shared their perspectives on what BLSA and the Donning of the Kente mean to them.
"The Donning of the Kente is a very important event. It is an opportunity for graduating BLSA members to be celebrated by the community we have poured into during our time in law school. Being able to be in a space that celebrates you for who you are is nothing short of special."
“Penn State Law BLSA is like a second family to me. Not only did I find solace in being part of this amazing group, but I also made friends and memories I will take with me for life.”
“The Donning ceremony holds a very special place in my heart. It allows an opportunity for our BLSA chapter to step away from the rigors of law school and celebrate the accomplishments of our community. Law school is difficult. It is challenging and three years of hard work. I would not be where I am without BLSA, and to be surrounded by the people who supported and uplifted me throughout the journey is priceless.”
ACTIVE IN BLSA AND BEYOND
BLSA was recognized as Student Organization of the Year for 2022-2023 by both the Penn State Law Student Bar Association (SBA) and by the SBA's Law and Equity Committee. Many of the graduates played an active leadership role in BLSA in addition to other student organizations. During their time at Penn State Law, they held many positions and earned numerous achievements.
- Armstrong served as BLSA chapter treasurer (2021-2022), a member of the Penn State Law Review, and member of the national mock trial team (2021-2022).
- Brown served as BLSA chapter secretary (2021-2022); BLSA Alumni Committee Chair (2022-23); founding executive board member for the Penn State Law chapter of the National Lawyers Guild; was a clinical student for the Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic during her 2L and 3L years; and was a member of the BLSA regional champion mock trial team in 2022. She also received the 2022 Congresswoman Barbara Jordan Educational Equity Scholarship.
- Dorville was a member of BLSA and the Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic.
- Miles served as president of the Criminal Law Society (2021-2022) and a 1L representative (2020-2021); member of BLSA Mock Trial Team (2022 regional champions); resident student blogger for the Journal of Law and International Affairs; treasurer and 1L representative of OutLaw (2020-2021); treasurer of the Women's Law Caucus (2021-2022); Public Interest Law Fund Fellow (2020-2021), Fundraising Chair (2021-2022), and Fellowship Chair (Fall 2022); and a Law Lion Ambassador.
- Ogbonna-Amu was a National BLSA Moot Court competitor (2021-2022); coach for the moot court team that placed second in regionals (2022-2023); a member of the Penn State Law Moot Court Board (2022-2023); and a judicial extern for the Honorable Kim Gibson.
- Washington served as BLSA 1L representative (2020-2021) and vice president (2021-2022); Mid-Atlantic BLSA Chair; member of the BLSA regional champion mock trial team in 2022; managing editor of the Arbitration Law Review; ABA Judicial Clerkship Program participant; member of the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic; extern in the Penn State NCAA Compliance Office; federal judicial summer intern with the Honorable Julia Gibbons, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals; and has accepted a position as an entry-level associate with Troutman Pepper (Philadelphia office) in the labor and employment practice group.
- Wright served as BLSA 1L coordinator (2021-2022); a member of the Journal of Law and International Affairs; and Criminal Law Society Criminal Justice Reform Conference Chair (2021-2022).
The graduates have made their impact at Penn State Law in University Park, and now they are poised to bring their skills and abilities to the legal profession.
“Congratulations to the BLSA graduates,” Dr. Ferguson said. “I hope the symbolism of the vibrant Kente stole sustains their work as they prepare for the bar exam and undertake to help others as a lawyer prepared for practice by Penn State Law.”