The year 2020 was weird for everyone who lived through it, but it was no doubt weirder still for the 136 students at Talladega College who graduated Saturday.
Valedictorian Amber Ellington actually completed her senior year online, as her grandmother and great-grandmother both fought the virus.
“I can’t believe I’m standing in front of you today,” she told her classmates Saturday. "There was a time when I didn’t think college was for me, but my aunt convinced me to try it for one semester. After that semester, I still wasn’t sure.”
She added that at some point, “I realized that comfort and growth don’t belong at the same table. You have to step outside your comfort zone or you will remain where you are forever. Remember, greatness is not birthed from the womb of comfort.”
College President Dr. Billy Hawkins said Saturday that the past year had been “a long and trying one” and that COVID-19 had taken the world by storm. He also emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated, while staying involved with the wider community.
Police violence and the reaction to the same, the rise of Black Lives Matter and a new generation of civil rights leaders also characterized the past year, and provided opportunities for the soon-to-be newly minted graduates to get involved and make a difference.
In addition to the members of this year’s senior class, Talladega College also presented four honorary doctorates, including one to board chairman Isaiah Hughley.
In addition to chairing the board, Hughley is also the city manager of Columbus, Ga., and his wife, Carolyn Fleming Hughley, is the minority whip in the Georgia House of Representatives.
“This is a surprise,” Hughley said when presented with the award.
He said that like many in attendance, “I was the first in family to go to college. I got full ride while my family was still on welfare. It’s been important for me to pay it forward ever since. As you go forward, you have to pay it back.”
In his remarks earlier in the program, Hughley told the graduates, “This is your day. This is the dress rehearsal for the rest of your life. … Be Talladega Strong, so we can all be Talladega Proud.”