#AUBLACKEXCELLENCE: University’s Debut Black Excellence Gala Shines Bright

Throughout February, universities across the Western world organize events and forums to raise awareness and celebrate students of African descent. At times, good intentions can be overshadowed as we strive to strike a healthy balance between the educational aspects of events and creating a safe space for Black students. It is sometimes difficult to decipher what would be the most beneficial to black college students, many of whom in Canada are immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. However, on February 29, 2024, at Acadia University a historical event took place that not only celebrated students of African descent but united the diaspora for a single night. After a month of events, lunchtime chats, and chapel services, Acadia University, led by Dotun Olutoke and the Office of African Descent Student Opportunity and Success gifted the black students on this campus with a “Black Excellence Gala” that was a true testament to the provincial African Heritage Month’s theme: Our Smiles, Our Joys and Our Experiences.

Photo of Gala guests during remarks made by Rev. Dr. Lennett J. Anderson

Upon entering the banquet, I was welcomed by a captivating presentation of African culture. Kente fabrics (Ghanaian fabric prints) adorned the tables, while the tabletop was embellished with various pieces of African paraphernalia. The walls were lined with tassels with the words “Black Excellence” which reminded me of the tassels black students are privileged to walk across the graduation stage with. As the guests arrived, the Caribbean students showed out in their Sunday best while the African students were adorned in their traditional clothing. This was the event that we anticipated with bated breath this entire month and we were not going to disappoint.

The evening commenced as the Masters of Ceremonies, Rev. Dr. Lennett J. Anderson, lecturer at the Acadia Divinity College, greeted us with his innate energy and charisma. He reminded us that Nova Scotia was the birthplace of African presence in Canada as it became a refuge for Black Loyalists who fled the United States after the American War of Independence, as well as being the last stop on the Underground Railroad. He also highlighted that this gala marked a historic moment in Acadia University’s history as the first dedicated to celebrating Black students. These sentiments persisted in a post-event interview, where he remarked “This is such a defining moment of celebrating Black excellence in the Acadia community.” He also commented that he appreciated the Afro-centric space where we as members of the Black community were seen and heard.

After the singing of the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing “presented by two talented African students, Joyce Adeyi and Usman, Mr. Scott Duguay, Vice-President of Student Experience, and Dr. Késa Munroe-Anderson gave their remarks and congratulations to the students on this historic day.  Dr Munroe-Anderson commented “black students are critical to the Acadia community” as she thanked Dotun and the Office of African-Descent Student Opportunity and Success for a job well done. Following this was a musical display of African Drumming. The music of our ancestors filled the room, resonating deeply with the hearts of the listeners. Some individuals swayed in their chairs, while others clapped in tune. One student even mentioned that the music made her emotional. This wasn’t the sole performance of the night; rising artist Boy Rydaa, known as Ryder among friends, took the stage to deliver captivating Afrobeat songs. The crowds cheered him on during his performance, showing us what black excellence looks like in the arts.

Photo of African Drum Performance 

After the drum performance, we were able to taste the delicacies of the motherland as we tried native Nigerian dishes. Foods such as Pepper Stew, Jollof Rice, Egusi, and Pounded Yam filled our taste buds. As a Caribbean, this was my first time enjoying authentic Jollof rice and it reminded me a lot of a Caribbean dish “Peas and Rice” but without the peas. The food was catered for by a chef from the Halifax area, Sekinat Alagbe, and throughout the night guests sang her praises. After dinner, our Keynote speaker Joy Chiekwe, Clinical Exercise Physiologist, Acadia Alumni, and daughter of Nigerian immigrants encouraged us with her journey as she seeks to aid cancer survivors. She encouraged students to “write our own story” as they navigate university life.

However, the highlight of the night’s events was the distribution of bursaries. Each Black Acadia student in attendance was entered into a raffle that placed them in the running for these bursaries. Every student in attendance hoped fervently for their number to be drawn in the raffle for the $500 bursary. It appeared that one table, in particular, had a special connection as they emerged as the recipients of the majority of the scholarships as if they had gained favor in God’s eyes. Originally, only six scholarships were to be given out, however, in a last-minute decision by the Vice President of Finance and Administration, Erin Beaudin, they allowed three more scholarships to be given out. Nine students won these bursaries from fields such as English, Engineering, Kinesiology, and Computer Science. 

After this, Dotun Olutoke along with Mr. Scott Duguay presented Certificates of Appreciation to students who are committed to programs that support students of African descent at Acadia University. One of the awardees was Megan Glasgow, president of the Acadia Caribbean Union. Post-event, she commented in support of this gala becoming an annual event. Other honorees consisted of students who participated in the mentorship programs, led Black clubs on campus, and participated in making this event possible. 

To conclude the night’s festivities, a cultural dance party unfolded, with the beats of Afrobeat, Soca, and Dancehall filling the room. It’s worth noting that the Caribbean students found themselves outdanced by the group of African students who dominated the dance floor with their lively performance. Yet, while the entire night celebrated Black culture one theme rang true in one student’s comment, “It felt like a home away from home.” At the gala, we were neither Canadian, Caribbean, or African, we were all Black. Our experiences make us a family and we are home in the company of each other. As a Caribbean student, I have never felt more connected to my African heritage than I was on the night of the gala as I was surrounded by my peers and faculty members alike.

Although the event showcased the diversity of black students at Acadia, one individual truly stood out. Dotun Olutoke, African Descent Student Engagement Specialist at Acadia University. Both Megan Glasgow, Dr Munroe-Anderson, and many others throughout the night praised Dotun on a job well done not only for the gala but for the entirety of this month’s events. In an interview,  Dotun remarked that he is grateful for the Black students, faculty, and staff and looks forward to the gala becoming a tradition. He also wanted to encourage more Black alumni to come back and support the black students on campus so that spaces like this can continue.

As we commemorate this historic event, I can confidently declare that this is how we celebrate Black History Month! This gala proves that we need to invest in our Black students by not only providing them with a safe space but also investing in their schooling and recognizing their hard work. Our Black students rightfully deserve a space on this campus, and this gala provided just that. It allowed us to authentically be ourselves and celebrate our diverse cultures and heritage. Or we can simply put it in the words of one student after the gala, “I feel blessed to be Black #blackexcellence.”

Photo of Gala Attendees