I would like to begin by thanking our board chair, Dr. Warren Procci, our president Dr. Richard Guarasci, our provost Dr. Lily McNair, honored guests Dr. Aletta Kipp Diamond and Dr. Wes Moore, distinguished trustees, administration, faculty and staff — you make this possible. Thank you. I’d like to extend a very special thanks to the friends, family and loved ones here today who have supported each of us on our “Wagner Plan,” specifically my parents, my Wagner College Papa Dean Curtis Wright and the wonderful melting pot of Griffiths and Beadys I have the privilege to call my family. It is my honor to address you all.
Most importantly: Class of 2015! Hello!
Many of you may know me as … unconventional.
- The girl with voluminous hair that’s a strange cross between braids and dreadlocks, frequently accessorized with bright flowers, year-round. (You should have seen the struggle this morning as I tried to fit this cap on my head.)
- Or the girl who has lived in Harborview Hall her entire college career … by choice.
- Or the girl who is literally always at the first desk in the basement of the Horrmann Library, right outside the girl’s restroom. My best friend Rachael Walker and I, along with the librarians, call it our “office.”
But many of you here with us today do not know me at all, so allow me to introduce myself. My name is Kerri Lee Alexander, and I am unconventional.
Unconventional (adjective) — existing outside of what is generally done or believed. (By taking 5 years to complete a 4-year degree, I think I fit the definition.)
But, as you can probably relate, my experiences at Wagner College have taught me to be unconventional. Like so many, I came to New York, lured by the bright lights of Broadway. My pre-Wagner life consisted of lessons, auditions and all things “Glee.” But with monologue in hand, I soon realized that I did not have a voice. I spent so much time perfecting other people’s stories that I never developed the voice to tell my own — that is, until I began my unconventional journey here at Wagner.
Do you remember when our parents or grandparents would tell us how they had to walk uphill in the snow — and, for added effect, with no shoes — just to get to school every day? Now, I don’t know about you, but my family is from the Caribbean, and I’m sure that there were fewer hills and even less snow there, so I listened to these stories and believed they were just fables … until I met my good friend, Audriana Mekula-Hanson. Audriana came to Wagner College a newlywed, working at CVS to help pay her tuition. So when she wasn’t tutoring other students, serving as editor of the Wagnerian or maintaining 4.0 GPA, she was walking, like our parents, in the dark, in the rain and, yes, in the snow, just to get to work so she could stay in school. Through her unconventional “Wagner Plan,” she taught me to question limitations.
Expanding on this lesson, through My Sistah’s Keeper, an advocacy group devoted to women of color, my fellow members and I quickly learned to challenge both internal and external limitations. Through our workshops, discussions and visits to the young women at the African Refuge Center in the Staten Island community of Park Hill, we confronted our perceptions of the glass ceiling that many African-American women face. Our collective reflections, laughter, and many tears helped us begin to heal, push past those limitations and gain strength to embrace the things that make us unique.
On this unconventional journey, I learned to disrupt the norm as I worked with the Wagner College chapter of Unified Theatre, an organization fostering full inclusion within the performing arts. I’ve come to know that Wagner College has a history of creating graduates who disrupt the norm, which is evident in the work of Richard Salinardi, Class of 1969 and co-founder of Lifestyles for the Disabled here on Staten Island. During my sophomore year, Unified Theatre partnered with Mr. Salinardi’s center to create a remix of the Disney classic, “Cinderella” — and that is where I met John, an avid Batman fanatic and a participant from Lifestyles who fearlessly disrupted the norms of what Prince Charming should be. After countless rehearsals, the day of the performance arrived, and in comes our Prince Charming John, dressed head-to-toe in a Batman costume. Let’s just say our Prince Charming performed like a seasoned professional and saved our Cinderella from the Evil Stepmother with remarkable ease. Batman taught me that normal is overrated.
If you have been on campus for more than 30 minutes, you have surely heard about the Port Richmond Partnership. Some of you have tutored at El Centro del Inmigrante; others have worked at soup kitchens through Project Hospitality; but it is there, in Port Richmond, where I found my voice. Through the Sound of Port Richmond, a creative arts partnership between Wagner College, Imagining America and various dynamic community organizations, I learned to dismantle cultural imperatives. Through the bizarre theater exercises and communal meals, our dedicated group created a play about an interracial relationship, “Sterling and Maria,” challenging the racial tensions in the area and boldly going against the grain. And as we look around the country, whether we visit Baltimore, Ferguson, North Charleston or Tompkinsville, we can see that we need more tools with which to confront the artificial cultural imperatives imposed upon us. One method I’ve learned on my Wagner journey to shatter these imperatives is to, simply, be authentically who I am.
What I’ve learned on this unconventional journey is that I have a voice, and that it matters — not because I’m special, but because collectively, as a graduating class, we are special. We are unconventional.
We are skilled, with countless academic honors, nationally accomplished sports teams, and a theater program ranked number one in the nation.
And we are engaged, with civic work recognized by the White House; a vibrant Wagner Cares outreach organization; and a Black Student Union, led by my friend and brother Jarrid Williams who, when he is not on the football field, leads this assembly — and we collectively, unapologetically stand in the face of adversity and tragedy, taking each breath with gratitude in honor of those who cannot breathe.
We, my fellow graduates, are unconventional. By simply surviving 4 (or more) years of higher education, we are now among a cohort of less than 7 percent of people in the world — people who hold a college degree. Our attendance here places us outside of what is generally accepted. We will be remarkable leaders, civic professionals and groundbreaking frontrunners.
But the work is far from over. In our final assignment, it is now our task — no, our responsibility — to take our oddities and abnormalities and change the world. And I don’t mean the clichéd “change the world” that we constantly hear at commencement. I mean actually change the world.
Infiltrate uncharted territories, maintaining the curiosity of a child on your path to greatness.
Liberate systems of oppression that shackle many to obscurity, and that question the humanity of every being that walks this earth.
And celebrate and appreciate our differences, taking into consideration that each of us is one of a kind and our voice is essential.
Finally, if you didn’t hear a word I said this entire time — and if you nodded off, welcome back — I would encourage you to be thoughtful, deliberate and intentional as you walk through life, suited with the armor of a Wagner College degree.
And, if nothing else, give yourself permission to be unconventional.
Kerri Lee Alexander, an arts administration major from Bloomfield, Conn., has dedicated her time at Wagner to igniting change within our community. She was a founding member and served as president of My Sistah’s Keeper, the first support group and mentorship program for African-American women at both the African Refuge Youth Center and at Wagner College. She was instrumental in the creation of a highly successful performing arts partnership between Wagner College, Imagining America, Project Hospitality, Eye Openers: Youth Against Violence, and the Port Richmond community called the Sounds of Port Richmond. Alexander was also a founding member and then president of Unified Theater on Staten Island, collaborating with Lifestyles for the Disabled to foster full inclusion within the performing arts. She has served the Wagner College community as a peer leader, a summer conference assistant and as a member of the Society for Arts Administration Students and the Black Student Union. She has interned at MAPP International Productions, planning culturally and socially conscious engagements merging performance and critical dialogue. Alexander has been recognized for her incredible contributions with the MLK Agent of Change Award and the Distinguished Leader Award and has been designated a Port Richmond Community Scholar. This fall, she will begin her graduate work toward a Master of Arts in Theological Studies and Women’s Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.
For more about Kerri Lee Alexander:
- Watch a New York 1 interview recorded last December with Kerri Lee Alexander and another Wagner College student leader, Jarrid Williams, following the announcement of the grand jury’s decision in the death of Eric Garner
- Read a print interview with Kerri Alexander and Jarrid Williams published in the college’s alumni magazine