Affinity graduations return in-person, full capacity on campus

After two years of virtual or limited-attendance events, affinity graduations have fully returned to the University of Iowa’s campus to celebrate students from marginalized communities.


Isabella Cervantes

Photo Illustration.

Marandah Mangra-Dutcher, News Reporter

To highlight minority students on campus, many Multicultural and International Student Support and Engagement, or MISSE, centers are hosting graduation celebrations this spring. The celebrations are all returning to full capacity with in-person programming.

The graduation celebrations for different identity groups are commonly called affinity graduations in MISSE, said Emma Welch, coordinator of the Pride Alliance Center.

“The purpose behind an affinity graduation is [that] we recognize that marginalized students are faced with barriers beyond academic barriers,” she said. “Whether that’s interpersonal barriers, or navigating this campus with an identity that is not the ‘majority’ where there’s a disparity in graduation rates for LGBTQ students and additional marginalized students.”

The Pride Alliance Center’s Rainbow Graduation in 2020 was entirely virtual because of COVID-19. The celebration featured Instagram highlights of the LGBTQ+ graduates and a YouTube video with slides including quotes from the students, their photos, and their accolades. The Pride Alliance Center held a socially distanced and crowd-limited celebration in 2021 where some of the virtual elements were transferred over.

“We don’t always have that opportunity in the graduation ceremony to hear their message to their supporters,” she said. “I thought that was actually really beautiful and that was a piece that we kept into last year’s Rainbow graduation ceremony, which was very small because we were still in the height of COVID.”

The Rainbow Graduation in spring 2022 has a record number of participants, Welch said.

“This year we have 70 and in the same vein, our last in-person celebration, in 2019, we had 24 graduates at the in-person ceremony,” she said. “Last year, with COVID, we had about 20 again because that was a smaller celebration.”

Welch said each cultural center hosting an affinity graduation helps communicate its ceremony’s structure with the others, but there are no standardized elements. She said the Pride Alliance Center gives graduates rainbow cords and upon request blue, white, and pink cords — the colors of the transgender pride flag — at the Rainbow Graduation.

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The Rainbow Graduation will be held on May 10 at 6:30 p.m. in the Old Capitol Museum.

Samer Suleman, the Afro-American Cultural Center’s student lead, is participating in the Black Graduation in May and was last year’s emcee. Suleman said the Black Graduation is a celebration.

“The graduates all had goodie bags that had shirts [in] their sizes, messages, all these things,” he said. “If you think about it as a collective grad party, that’s how it felt.”

Suleman said the celebration brings a sense of community on campus together.

“I think it brings a really good, strong sense of community and love,” he said. “I’m really excited for my little graduation party that I’m sharing with everyone else.”

Like the Rainbow Graduation, the Black Graduation was held entirely virtual in 2020, Suleman said. The 2021 celebration was held in the Iowa Memorial Union Ballroom. The event will be in person this spring.

At the Black graduation, Suleman said, every graduate receives a Kente stole as a form of celebration to dignify the difficult journey of learning about themselves and
their heritage.

“The practice is, the parents or friends of these graduates at one point during the celebration, are going to be asked to stand next to the graduate,” he said. “The speaker will say some words and after they’re done saying some words they say ‘You can now put the stole on, graduate.’”

Suleman said the Kente stole will be decorated with the graduation year and the university emblem.

The Black Graduation will take place May 13 at 5 p.m.

Other MISSE centers, like the Latino Native American Cultural Center and the International Student Support and Engagement, will also hold affinity graduations of their own.

International Student Support and Engagement Coordinator Shuhui Lin said the center will hold its their very first in-person affinity graduation for international students. The support center held its first celebrations during the pandemic. The International Student Graduation is on May 12 at 3 p.m. in the Senate Chambers in the Old Capitol.

The Latino Native American Cultural Center is partnering with the UI Latinx Council to put on the Latinx/a/o Graduation on May 12 at 5:30 p.m.

Suleman said celebrating in person is important.

“Going in person, seeing people dressed up having a good time, seeing the speakers, seeing awards being distributed, seeing slides and the whole just, like, dressed-up venue,” he said. “That’s memorable.”