Chants roared from the crowd as attendees of Howard University’s 146th commencement waited to hear from one of the entertainment industry’s most notable figures, Sean “Diddy” Combs.
After weeks of controversy surrounding the university’s decision to award Diddy with an honorary doctorate of humanities, the media mogul took the stage to address more than a thousand graduates, even those who disagreed with Howard choosing him as the commencement speaker.
“There were some graduates who thought him receiving an honorary degree when they earned theirs is contradictory to what they went through,” said Cameron Terry, a junior business management major. “But if you had the same opportunity, you would do the same thing.”
Diddy once attended Howard University but decided to leave after his second year to pursue a career in the music industry following an internship offer with Uptown Records. In his speech to graduates, Diddy said it was a risk that Howard staff encouraged him to take.
But the fact Diddy never finished his degree sparked mixed reactions from the Howard University community when he was confirmed as speaker. Some objected to promoting Diddy as a role model due to a controversial past both in his professional and personal life.
Yet, as the minutes ticked down before Diddy approached the podium, many in the audience welcomed his presence.
“I thought it was cool because he’s an unconventional speaker,” said graduate Marian Taylor. “I think it really fits our class because we grew up listening to his music, and he has made it.”
Before the ceremony, attendees had different ideas on how Diddy could silence critics. Keiana Allen, the cousin of a graduate, felt the best advice he could give to the students is to keep pushing.
“He needs to let them know this isn’t the end, this is only the beginning,” she said. “You have your degree, but so does everyone else. You have to do what you have to do to stand out.”
Graduate Marchello Cash thought it was important for Diddy to address the hundreds of black men in the audience.
“I want him to speak to the deficiency of black males who are graduating from college,” he said. “Here at Howard University, the majority of our graduates are women, and [Diddy] is saying not only did he make it but he has a model for us to follow.”
After an introduction by the university president, Diddy shook his head in disbelief while graduates chanted his name. Before he uttered a single word, he took several moments to stare into the crowd.
“Ain’t no homecoming like a Howard homecoming, and it feels so good to be home.”
In the 30-minute speech, Diddy challenged graduates to recognize their power and to not get discouraged by the failures they will experience on the road to success.
He drew laughs and shouts of “Amen” as he stressed perseverance through adversity, connecting his struggle of completing a marathon (26.3 miles) with returning to Howard to accept an honorary degree 26 years after he left.
“Sometimes you don’t even have the time to prepare for your marathon,” he said. ”If I didn’t leave school early, I would have been more prepared when I was first starting out. But today, you all are prepared.”
Diddy’s speech received positive reviews from most attendees who admired many of his sentiments. Michael Sesay, a 2012 graduate, said the fact that Diddy wasn’t the typical honoree made his speech more relatable and effective.
“The speech was better than I expected. He wasn’t conventional. It was more exciting that way, especially with his theme of knowing your own power,” he said.
Many in the audience highlighted Diddy’s message of self-motivation as the most memorable.
“I don’t want you to be the next Oprah. I don’t want you to be the next Obama. I don’t even want you to be the next me,” he said. “I want you to be you.”
That message resonated with Terry.
“I really appreciate the insight he gave on walking in the darkness by being your own light,” he said. “You can’t be afraid of obstacles; you have to embrace them.”
Oriundria Archie thought Diddy’s speech was the perfect message for graduates.
“For the younger crowd, this was something they needed to see,” she said. “Maybe you don’t complete one thing, but that doesn’t mean this is your end. You can always start a new road.”
Before thanking the crowd and leading the traditional school call of “H.U. — You Know!” Diddy gave one last parting message to the class of 2014:
“I can’t wait to live in the world that you all are about to create. You are the most powerful generation this world has ever seen.”
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