An award-winning author and veteran journalist advised nearly 400 Claflin University graduates to continue developing the stories of their lives.
"Be open to life for times such as this. Be open to what life brings you,” April Ryan said.
“You have an unwritten page. What will that be?" she said.
Ryan delivered the keynote address Saturday morning at the university's 148th commencement held at the South Atlantic Seventh-Day Adventist Convention Center.
Ryan told the 385 members of the Class of 2018 that there is still work to do after the celebration of their achievements is over.
Ryan has served as a White House correspondent since 1997 and is the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks. In 2017, she joined CNN as a political analyst.
As a White House correspondent, she has covered four presidential administrations. But the 50-year-old Baltimore native and Morgan State University graduate says she never imagined that her career would take her as far as it has.
She encouraged the graduates to continue to blaze new trails in their fields to make their communities and the world a better place. She said knowing their history won't hurt, either.
"Know who you are by knowing where you came from," she said, drawing applause.
She said the graduates are poised to challenge the system, but stressed that the journey will not be easy, particularly since they are living in a time when many historically black colleges and universities are struggling to remain open and the lands many of their ancestors came from are being called "s - - - hole nations."
"We're still talking about poverty in 2018," she said.
Ryan urged the graduates to walk boldly into the future with a tenacity which will help them see a brighter future.
"You’ve got to know who you are and whose you are and walk boldly into the light sometimes," Ryan said.
Speaking on the day before Mother's Day, she gave special recognition to the graduates' mothers who sacrificed to help get them to where they are.
She said the graduates have to make sure their future stories are worth telling and urged them to stand up and speak out when they see things wrong in the world whether it's happening to themselves or someone else because "if you see something over there, that's you."
"We are still a people," who are unemployed and underemployed and face other challenging issues, she said. But she but noted that the millennial generation has the power to create change and help "strive for a more perfect union"
"We are at a critical time. You are our hope and our change. ... I don't care about who you vote for. Vote. Too many people died at the crack of the billy club" and marched for that right to do any less, Ryan said.
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"There is power in who you are," but you have to find out how to ignite it, she said. If a kid from Baltimore can pursue and fulfill her goals to reach success in life, they can, too.
"In 2018, we're still fighting for first-class citizenship," she said.
Ryan borrowed a verse from a song from the late soul singer Donny Hathaway in stating, "Some day we'll all be free."
She said the class of "visionary leaders" must help make it possible.
"You stand on the shoulders of history. I want to see excellence. ... What's your story?" she said.
Briana Berry and Dominique Riggins were among the graduates who said Claflin gave them a foundation to continue writing their stories.
Berry received a bachelor's degree in English, but it was not without challenges.
"I can truly say that I am elated I finally made it to this point. It's been a struggle. I actually lost my mom my sophomore year of college, and I actually have the awesome task of taking care of my younger brother who's now 12," Berry said.
"I'm elated that I've pressed through everything that I've had to face. ... I honestly feel like I'm well prepared. I've had the opportunity to work in District 5 when I started gaining field experience around my sophomore year, so I've actually been employed with District 5 about two years now," Berry said. "I've gained that experience in the education field that I want to go into."
Riggins said the fact that he reached graduation with a bachelor's degree in history is "still unbelievable."
"It's just being able to say I'm in that number and I've completed something. I think that's the greatest feeling I have now, knowing that I completed something and I stayed true to what I wanted to do," Riggins said.
He plans to attend the University of South Carolina School of Law in the fall.
"Claflin has prepared me in my leadership development above anything else. I'm truly thankful for the skills that I've gained," he said.
Claflin University Board Chairman James Bennett was among the university officials who urged the students to continue to strive for greatness as the visionary leaders they were molded to be.
"Leadership and service will translate into success. ... It's not who you are, it's what you will do going forth with your life that will define you," he said.
Also during the commencement, Ryan received an honorary doctorate of humanities degree. Along with the presentation of Presidential Awards, members of the Claflin Class of 1968 received golden diplomas for their 50th year anniversary.