April 25, 2024 | Alumni | Students

Black Graduation: celebrating excellence through community

A group of 12 smiling Black graduates and their friends and family stand outside of Hart House.

Taking place during convocation season in June, Black Graduation is an annual student-run celebration of excellence that fosters a sense of community and pride among U of T's Black students and graduates.

Energizing, joyful, uplifting. Those are just three of the words attendees of Black Graduation have used to describe the student-run event that’s been happening annually at U of T since 2017.

And for Etienne Oshinowo (BSc 2023), the word “busy” would also apply when describing his experience at last year’s Black Grad. Not only was he being celebrated as a graduate, but he was also president of U of T’s Black Students’ Association (BSA), the student group that plans and runs the entire celebratory event.

Etienne Oshinowo stands with Rhonda McEwen in Hart House, both wearing Black Graduation stoles.
Last year's Black Students' Association president and graduate Etienne Oshinowo (left) stands with Rhonda McEwen, president and vice-chancellor of Victoria University, at the 2023 Black Graduation.

As he zipped around behind the scenes at Hart House, making sure all the grads attending had received their graduation stoles and the slide show was working just right, he was so focused on ensuring the event was running smoothly that he almost forgot to celebrate his own achievements as a grad. But that all changed once his name was called and he walked across the stage.

“After that, I just let go of my role as an organizer and immersed myself with all the other graduates,” says Oshinowo. “It was so great to see all these Black students together in one place, displaying all that excellence.”

Indeed, celebrating Black excellence and achievement is a big part of why U of T grads Nasma Ahmed (BA 2017 UTSC) and Jessica Kirk (BSc 2017 UTSC, MA 2020 OISE) first established Black Graduation in 2017.

The duo was inspired by similar ceremonies south of the border: high-profile American schools like NYU, Columbia and Harvard began holding Black graduation celebrations not long before U of T, which was the first Canadian university to host such an event. Since then, other Canadian schools have been following U of T's lead, including McMaster, Simon Fraser, Concordia and Toronto Metropolitan University.

A group of Black Graduates sits in Hart House applauding fellow graduates.
Black Graduation at U of T has been described as energizing, joyful and uplifting.

While fully organized by the BSA, this year U of T’s Black Graduation will receive some alumni support. When alumni use insurance services from U of T’s affinity program partners, Manulife or TD Insurance, part of the proceeds will go towards a variety of student and alumni programs including Black Graduation.

Belonging, community and pride

Black Graduation isn’t meant to be an alternative to the university’s official convocation ceremonies, of course. Oshinowo calls it “a lovely supplement” to the official convocation – an additional celebration that helps foster a sense of belonging, community and pride among U of T’s Black students and graduates.A view of the full crowd and room at Black Graduation in Hart House.

“Creating events like Black Graduation – which is completely student-led, by volunteer Black Students’ Association members – is something we do out of the love for our own community,” says this year’s BSA president Doyin Adeyemi, a fourth-year student about to graduate with a double major in ethics, society and law, and psychology, who is planning to pursue a career in law.

Black Graduation has an “uplifting” effect for U of T’s Black community, she explains. It’s an opportunity to interact with a larger group of fellow Black students than you would typically meet in your individual classes or programs, she says. Some of them may be pursuing inspiring academic or career paths you hadn’t previously envisioned for yourself – but now that you see someone from your community pursuing that path, you know it’s possible. "So, it’s uplifting in terms of building community,” says Adeyemi, “but also in terms of, ‘This is a future pathway I could take.’”

A group of students in the audience at Black Graduation smiling and laughing.
Black Graduation is not only uplifting but it's also fun, featuring vibrant musical performances and talks from interesting speakers.

And on top of all that, it's fun. There are always vibrant musical performances that add to the celebratory mood, along with inspirational talks from interesting people. Past keynote speakers include poet, novelist and filmmaker Dionne Brand; Ontario’s first poet laureate Randell Adjei; politician Celina Caesar-Chavannes; and social worker and motivational speaker Francis Atta.

Energizing mood

“The mood is so energizing,” says Modele Kuforiji (BA 2018 SMC), student life coordinator, Black student engagement at U of T. Kuforiji, who was the MC at last year’s Black Grad, notes there’s a real “connectedness” and positive community spirit that flows through the event.

A group of young Black women pose together outside at Black Graduation.

At the end of last year’s ceremony, for example, one graduate’s family member – someone Kuforiji had never met before – came up to him and said she was proud of him. Since Kuforiji had graduated several years earlier and was simply the MC, he was a bit perplexed.

"I said, ‘Proud of me? But I didn't do anything.’ Then she said, ‘No, you did. You were a part of this. You were speaking life into these students. You were thanking them. You were walking them across this stage and helping them step through that new door of their life. I'm so proud of everyone involved today.’”

Over the years since 2017, Black Graduation – which is open to Black-identifying graduates from all three campuses – has been held either at Hart House or on the U of T Mississauga campus, as well as virtually during the pandemic.

A group of young Black men pose together outside at Black Graduation.

This year’s event will take place on June 2 at Hart House, with the theme “Legacy in motion: Passing the baton of excellence.” As Adeyemi explains, this theme is based on the idea that as Black students succeed and excel, they’re also “lifting up” the cohorts of students who come after them.

“In relays you are sprinting as hard as you can to get to the next position and pass that baton,” she says, “but there is also someone behind you running as fast as they can to get to where you are, symbolizing that continuous journey to strive for excellence.”


Alumni support helps make events like Black Graduation happen.

When alumni use insurance services from Manulife or TD Insurance, these affinity partners will be giving a portion of the proceeds to Black Graduation and other initiatives that celebrate and empower our students and alumni. Plus, alumni receive great preferred rates negotiated by U of T.

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