Roy Overstreet spoke to a sea of African-American faces Sunday at the Black Graduation Ceremony at UC Riverside, the place where, 53 years ago, he became the first African American to receive a degree from the university.
Overstreet, 76, said he was touched by the two standing ovations he received — and was astonished that a black graduation event could fill the gymnasium of UCR’s Student Recreation Center.
“It was mind-blowing,” Overstreet said after he spoke. “I never would have imagined it.”
UCR has earned a national reputation for attracting high-caliber black students and graduating them in large numbers. Nationally, only about 40 percent of black college students graduate within six years, Chancellor Timothy White told the crowd.
“Our African-American students graduate at a rate of nearly 72 percent,” more than 4 percent above the campus-wide rate, White said to loud cheers. “So they’re better than the average student at Riverside.”
Sunday was the ninth annual Black Graduation Ceremony. The event offers a way for black graduates and their families and friends to celebrate as a community, said Ken Simons, director of African Student Programs, which organized the event. Unlike the ceremonies for each UCR college, which take place Friday through June 13, there is no limit on the number of guests, so students can be surrounded by all those who made their graduation possible.
Ivory Rose Parnell-Chambeshi, who graduated from UCR in 2005, congratulated the graduates for rising above the challenges they faced. She then urged them to serve as examples for other young African Americans.
“Take young brothers and sisters with you,” she said. “Coach, mentor and read books along with them, share a little bit of your wonderful selves with them.”
One of the students who took part in Sunday’s ceremony, Khiana Ferguson, said it is exhilarating to graduate with so many other African-American students.
Ferguson, 22, is from Gardena, a city south of Los Angeles where many students drop out of high school and most do not attend college. She knows that many people stereotype African Americans, especially from low-income areas like hers, as underachievers.
“As an African American, I feel we’re sometimes looked down upon as people who don’t make it out, and where I’m from, many people do not make it out,” she said.
The Black Graduation Ceremony was an opportunity to recognize black academic success, she said.
“Knowing that I’m graduating with a group of African Americans who are scholars, who want to do something in their life, gives me additional motivation,” she said. “It makes me want to try even harder.”
But when Ferguson arrived on campus, she felt more comfortable than at the other two campuses, she said. When Ferguson visited them, she sensed people were staring at her because she was one of the few black faces they saw. Only about 2 percent of UC San Diego’s students and 4 percent of UCLA’s are black. Eight percent of UCR’s undergraduates are black, and students of all ethnicities mix together easily, Ferguson said.
“I didn’t feel like I was as welcome on those campuses as an African-American student,” she said. “At UCR, people say hello to you as you walk by, and you’ll get a friendly smile. You don’t feel like you’re looked at and judged.”
Overstreet was the second consecutive black UCR pioneer to address a Black Graduation Ceremony. Last year, Zelma Ballard, 75, who in 1959 became the second African-American UCR graduate, spoke.
Simons said Overstreet and Ballard serve as reminders to today’s black students that their predecessors succeeded in an era when there were even more challenges for African Americans.
“We have to continue honoring those who paved the way,” Simons said. “People like Roy and Zelma serve as a testament to hard work and struggle, that you get out of life what you put in.”
Overstreet traveled from his home in Oklahoma to speak. He received a degree in physics from UCR and worked for nearly 30 years tracking oil spills and nuclear material in oceans. When Overstreet began his work in the 1960s after earning his master’s degree, he was the country’s only black oceanographer, he said.
Overstreet and Ballard were friends who regularly drank coffee together on campus. For awhile, they were the only African-American students at UCR.
Neither faced discrimination or hostility — although they said that may have been because the campus was overwhelmingly white at the time.
“You know, the saying is that, when there are only one or two of us, everything’s OK,” said Ballard, a retired elementary school teacher who lives in Riverside. “When it gets to be a larger number, it’s different.”