An empowering rite of passage

Obianeze “Obi” Okolo, flanked by, from left, Renee Dickens Callan and Jennifer Ruggiero of Multicultural Student Affairs, received the Nanga Award at this year’s Senior Mwambo. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami
By Ashley A. Williams

Obianeze “Obi” Okolo, flanked by, from left, Renee Dickens Callan and Jennifer Ruggiero of Multicultural Student Affairs, received the Nanga Award at this year’s Senior Mwambo. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

An empowering rite of passage

By Ashley A. Williams
Senior Mwambo, an annual pre-commencement celebration honors black and brown students for their academic and civic achievements.

Even before Obianeze “Obi” Okolo could be introduced Thursday at the Shalala Student Center, the crowd began chanting his name. To his fellow students, Okolo epitomizes “nanga,” a word in the Bantu language widely used in East Africa that translates to “anchor.”

And that’s exactly what Okolo has been to the University of Miami, Renee Dickens Callan, the director of Multicultural Student Affairs, said in presenting Okolo with the Nanga Award at this year’s Senior Mwambo, which translates into rite of passage that celebrates the transition from one stage of life to the next. 

“One of the biggest criteria that we look at is humility and this person is so humble,” said Callan, calling Okolo to the stage. “This is the type of person that you want to be around.” 

First held at UM 27 years ago, the ceremony gives graduating black and brown students a space to gather, cheer, and reflect on their academic achievements—and a brightly colored kente cloth stole they can wear when they cross the commencement stage.

Okolo can wear his proudly when he receives his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry on Friday. The Nigerian-American is a Ronald A. Hammond scholar, a thoughtful and impressive role model who has served as president of the African Student Union, and a participant in IMPACT, a leadership retreat where emerging leaders begin to define and identify how to realize their full potential.

His passion for his Nigerian culture led him to create everlasting bonds on the UM campus and beyond. He most recently joined forces with the Caribbean Students Association and Planet Kreyol to create a shared office space in the Shalala Student Center to promote collaboration and discussion while celebrating the individuality of each organization’s identity.

Camila Rodriguez-Rojas, a graduating senior, also was recognized for her dedication to service and social justice activism on campus. She coordinated the Students of Color Symposium, an educational initiative where attendees engaged in dialogue about issues that affect their personal and professional growth.

As the ceremony began, Senior Mwambo elder Jashua Sa-Ra provided its “heartbeat,” playing traditional rhythms of West Africa using a djembe—a rope-tuned skin-covered goblet drum. Sa-Ra also performed a libation ceremony as a way to honor African ancestors.

In their opening remarks, Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, assistant provost of undergraduate education, and Patricia A. Whitely, vice president for Student Affairs, gave words of encouragement to the graduates as they enter the next phase of their life’s journey.

“This is a tradition that is of deep fabric in the way that we celebrate,” Whitely said, before introducing Dania Beach City Commissioner Tamara James, a retired professional WNBA basketball player who was inducted into the UM Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.

In an electrifying speech, the former mayor told students to “get up” and never stop pursuing their dreams, even when the odds seem stacked against many marginalized groups in America.

 “There are a lot of people who wished they were in the seats that you are in now,” said James. “The knowledge that you have, no one can take this from you.”