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Driven to purpose by passion, Class of 2021 celebrates the Baccalaureate, virtually
In a virtual address during the annual celebration of cultures and traditions, former NFL player, business leader and Brown alumnus Steven Jordan urged graduates to uncover their purposes in life by examining their passions.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In typical years, Brown’s Baccalaureate service is a cacophonous Commencement Weekend affair, with cultural performances, drums, organs, chants and church bells soaking the Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America in the sounds of celebration.
This year’s ceremony, presented virtually on Friday, April 30, was a pared-down service featuring University chaplains, senior leaders and a musical interlude, given the impossibility of 1,000-plus graduates packing the intimate Meeting House during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event was noticeably quieter. The theme of the service, however, resonated loudly.
“It’s our way of saying ‘thank you’ in a big, broad cultural voice,” said University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson, who presided over the service. “Thank you to our parents, thank you to our benefactors, thank you to Brown for existing, and thank you God for getting us through this.”
As the world begins its recovery from one of the worst pandemics in modern history and the fight for racial justice continues, many graduates are wondering “What’s next? How do I prepare for it?” — two themes invoked during the Baccalaureate.
“Everything you’ve experienced here at Brown… has set you up perfectly for what comes next,” said President Christina H. Paxson as she introduced this year’s Baccalaureate speaker. “The challenge now is to trust it.”
And there’s no better example, Paxson said, of someone who trusted the value of their education and experience and in doing so found his purpose than former NFL star Steven R. Jordan, a Class of 1982 graduate, accomplished business leader, 2021 honorary degree recipient and the Baccalaureate ceremony’s keynote speaker.
Brown Class of 1982 graduate Steven R. Jordan delivers the keynote address, urging the Class of 2021 to harness their passions to drive their purpose.
Jordan was raised in South Phoenix, Arizona, in a historically Black district born of discriminatory redlining policies in the 1930s. A strong sense of community in the neighborhood’s schools, and especially his parents — both Black educators at high school and college levels — gave him unique privilege when it came to academics, he said. And though he excelled in math and science, he was equally passionate about the game of football.
Brown was “frankly, the only school that would let me play football for them,” Jordan said with a laugh during his Baccalaureate address, which was livestreamed to Class of 2021 graduates and accessible to anyone who tuned in. “But the fact that Brown had a great engineering program was confirmation that it would be the right choice.”
But struggling to find his balance as an undergraduate juggling varsity athletics, a rigorous set of courses, membership in Alpha Phi Alpha — Brown’s oldest Black fraternity, which this year marked its 100-year anniversary — and classic college social interactions, Jordan soon found himself on thin ice, academically.
“I realized I was on the verge of letting a lot of people down, including my parents,” he said. “But I agreed with them — I needed to refocus, and if I didn’t do better that next semester and going forward, I’d give up football.”
Jordan didn’t end up giving up football. Selected in the 1982 National Football League draft, he played 13 years for the Minnesota Vikings and was selected for six consecutive Pro Bowls. Upon his retirement, he was the Vikings’ all-time leading receiver and ranked third on the NFL’s all-time receptions list for tight ends. He held positions with the NFL Players Association and was a nominee for NFL Man of the Year, and in 2019, was inducted into the Vikings Hall of Fame and Ring of Honor.
“The desire for my passion is what kept me focused on my purpose,” Jordan said. “Had I given up football, that would have precluded the platform I eventually had to make an impact on a myriad of charities and youth organizations.”
In reflecting on his own career, Jordan said he can see clearly where his passion pulled him into different areas of purpose — not just on the field, but on the business side of football, where he became a representative for the NFL Players Association and helped negotiate a 1990s landmark agreement that led to significant improvements in player safety. In his post-football work as a leader in construction management and real estate development, Jordan still felt a pull to effect change in working conditions and ultimately moved toward a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in the industry.
The inspiration to reassess where his passions would lead him off the field was the direct result of a conversation Jordan had during his time as a member of the Brown Corporation with the late chancellor Artemis Joukowsky, a mentor and close friend. Joukowsky confided in Jordan that he was stepping down as chancellor given a succession plan in place and didn’t know what he would do next. He was in his in mid-60s at the time, but felt like he was still 30, he told Jordan.
“But as he reevaluated his passions, he revitalized his purpose and went on to do many impactful things for Brown and others well beyond that,” Jordan said. “It was inspirational to see this senior leader provide his energy — and he had a lot! — and wisdom that so many of us benefitted from.”
The ability to make discerning, fulfilling pivots in career direction is one that Jordan has faith that the Class of 2021 is uniquely qualified for, because of their courage, flexibility and resiliency regardless of the circumstances.
“The last year and a half would be indicative of that,” he said.
Associate Professor of Africana Studies Keisha-Khan Perry, left, leads a prayer as University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson prepares to pour libation in honor of the late Anani Dzidzienyo, who first championed the tradition's annual inclusion in the Baccalaureate ceremony.
Shining new light on ancient traditions
Although this year’s Baccalaureate service was a testament to flexibility, one tradition remained unchanged.
The pouring of libation — an ancient ritual in which a liquid is poured as an offering, or in memory of the dead — was performed by jointly by Cooper Nelson and Associate Professor of Africana Studies Keisha-Khan Perry, in honor of Anani Dzidzienyo, a revered scholar, mentor and educator at Brown who died last October after more than four decades of research and teaching at the University.
It was Dzidzienyo himself who taught Cooper Nelson the libation tradition and championed its annual inclusion in the Baccalaureate. He also worked with Cooper Nelson to revise the ceremony in 1991 to incorporate prayers and blessings performed in native languages, as well as cultural traditions that represent the homes of members of the student body — touchstones that have come to define Baccalaureate at Brown.
After the second iteration of the “new” Baccalaureate, Cooper Nelson said Dzidzienyo stopped her in the street. “He told me, ‘We talk a lot about diversity, but at Baccalaureate, I see it — and I see with depth and with content,’” she said.
Dzidzienyo’s influence on the University can’t be overstated, Cooper Nelson said, and he worked intentionally and ceaselessly to create an environment that helped to celebrate and support students of color, like Jordan.
She could see that influence when Jordan stepped into the role of Brown trustee and shared his passion, and purpose, for work to advance diversity and inclusion on campus: “With Steven coming from South Phoenix and Anani coming from Accra, they're like a pincer movement, helping Brown to get smarter about what we need to learn,” Cooper Nelson said. “We will continue to learn from the Steven Jordans and the Ananis as they keep talking to us. When you ask me why Steven Jordan seemed to the honorary degree committee a person to be honored, it is precisely because of his ability to both love Brown dearly, but to also hold us accountable.”
Mira Nikolova and Abdullah Shihipar, who respectively earned a Ph.D. and master’s from Brown in 2020, will return to campus to address their fellow alumni during a dedicated Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 28.