This weekend I will graduate in my living room. I will turn my tassel for a Zoom audience full of loved ones and drink a bottle of champagne in honor of my ancestors. Then, I will assure everyone looking on that despite drastic changes in our reality, I am eternally grateful for the journey that led me to this point. We will dance and sing in our respective homes and get tipsy enough that the distance that separates us will shrink. And I will end the night as a 2020 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

I have envisioned this makeshift ceremony for weeks now. Before the statewide lockdowns, before the rise in death tolls, I made peace with the graduation that would never be. I made peace with the fact that my life would not go on as I expected. I reveled in all the beautiful experiences I gained during my undergrad. Determined to be gracious and grateful by any means necessary, I refused to be upset by the uncontrollable circumstances.

On the very last day of classes, I attended a virtual senior send-off for UW-Madison’s First Wave scholarship program. I greeted my “FWamily” with a big smile, wearing a graduation cap hanging for dear life on my lumpy plaited hair. They asked each senior to share a song that came out when they first got to campus. My song was the 2016 hit Broccoli by Dram. A heap of emotions swelled in my chest when the song came on. I finally realized the weight of the moment. 

Kynala Phillips, University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate
Former ESSENCE intern Kynala Phillips adjusts to the idea that her last year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison didn’t play out the way she had expected.

Despite being born and raised in my college town, UW-Madison sometimes felt like a foreign land. Months before I enrolled in classes, mass protests erupted over the deaths of Michael Brown and Madison’s own Tony Robinson. Racially charged effigies and anonymous messaging apps transformed the state’s flagship university into what felt like a distant, segregated world. 

When I finally moved to campus, I faced an ironic culture shock that forced me to battle my fears head-on. Luckily for me, I found my people. Through lively debate, lots of laughs, and spontaneous dance breaks, most of us found balance. For my good friend Eneale and I, Broccoli was our song. We made it a point to break out in obnoxious dance every time we heard Dram’s raspy voice chant,  “Ain’t no tellin’ what I’m finna be on…” 

And that line may as well have been a mantra for how we lived our lives during our undergraduate career. We were Black, first-generation students itching to leave our university better than we found it. During my freshman year, any given day entailed writing essays about intersectionality and plotting a protest demonstration. In between heated debates over the superiority of mumbo sauce versus mild sauce, I witnessed campus movements like #TheRealUW emerge from dormitory lounges. I, myself, battled the depths of depression and still managed to turn in 12-page papers nearly every two weeks. I watched Eneale struggle to adapt to the temperament towards Black and Brown students and develop a provocative t-shirt business in response. 

I think back to the very first party I went to on UW-Madison’s campus. When Eneale and I got to the dim-lit event, we were met with smells of Everclear and watered down sangria. I remember wearing my septum piercing against my mom’s wishes and Eneale rocked a fresh first-week-of-school hair cut. We looked like babies. As the night went on, a sea of Black and Brown people crowded the tiny apartment. In the midst of what sometimes felt like a storm pushing us to the margins of campus, we built our own world. 

When the opening line of Dram’s song came on that night, Eneale and I were separated by swarms of sweaty people stacked like crayons. Both of us wailed out “I’m beyoooond all that f*ck sh*t,” and danced until we found ourselves in the center of the room. We would bop and sing until our hearts were full. This was our time and no one could take it from us. That became our routine for healing. Our tradition for recovery.  

University of Madison-Wisconsin First Wave students
Phillips found a college family among friends enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s First Wave program. Administered by the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI), the initiative is touted as the first university program in the country centered on urban arts, spoken word and hip-hop culture.

The most important thing UW-Madison taught me is to be ready for anything. And when I reflect on my five years of undergrad, I feel fortunate that I was prepared for this moment. I know the importance of a dance break. I know how to pause from all the stress and worries of my situation and choose happiness–even if it’s only for a moment. 

The class of 2020 was handpicked for this moment because we are change-makers, road-builders, groundbreakers. As of this writing, there are over 3 million cases of the novel coronavirus worldwide and over 1.2 million of those are right here in the U.S. We are graduating into a country that has found a way to polarize itself amid a global catastrophe. I have wept over my own father’s diagnosis and I continue to pray for him diligently. I am certain that the world is preparing us for something big because we will be called to facilitate the change we want to see in this world. 

During First Wave’s senior send-off, I was reminded of all of these lessons. After the song requests were finished, Dram’s carefree ode was still stuck in my head. Every time I start to get sad about the state of the world or my unceremonious graduation from UW-Madison, this song reminds me of a time where I had to choose joy while confronting giants of oppression and self-doubt head-on. 

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