As more than 800 students celebrated their graduation from Morgan State University on Saturday, human rights activist Graca Machel urged them to use their education to transform the world into a better place.
"It has been proved that education sows the seeds of transformation. ... It helps build bridges across cultures," Machel said under sunny skies at the university's Hughes Memorial Stadium.
Machel holds the distinction of being the only woman to serve as first lady in two countries: She was married to the late Samora Machel, who was president of Mozambique from 1975 until 1986, and later married South African President Nelson Mandela. She was married to Mandela when he died in 2013 at age 95.
She's also a human rights activist in her own right, having doubled school attendance in Mozambique as education minister, and advocating for women and children across Africa. She is currently chairwoman of the board for the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health and the African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes, and has studied the impact of war on children.
Morgan State's graduation was one of three college ceremonies in Baltimore on Saturday. Coppin State University held undergraduate commencement at the Physical Education Complex on campus, while Loyola University Maryland held ceremonies for 1,200 graduates at the Royal Farms Arena downtown.
Machel, who stopped at Morgan between meetings at the United Nations in New York and Washington, told the graduates that they can follow the path forged by 20th-century leaders such as Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"King and Mandela were not different from any of you. ... They dared to dream and have a vision of the world they wanted to live in," Machel said.
Today's challenges facing the world are somewhat broader than those faced by Mandela and King, famous for their leadership in fighting apartheid in South Africa and racial discrimination in America, respectively, Machel said. The world is plagued not only by racial, religious and other intolerance, but also with economic inequality and lack of opportunity for too many people.
Machel said graduates have received a torch of leadership from Mandela and King, and must carry it forward in facing the challenges of their time.
Referencing King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Machel said: "I urge you to reinvent the dream. ... Do reimagine and reshape the world you yearn to live in."
Nobody, she said, should be oppressed, be hungry, be denied shelter or left with no job or no hope.
In an interview before the ceremony, Machel said she was impressed with how many college students led peaceful marches in response to the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries in police custody in April — even as others resorted to violence and rioting.
Students from several Baltimore-area colleges were among those in a massive march days after rioting rocked the city.
"They did not make a blind eye to injustice. They made their voice heard in a peaceful way," Machel said. "I'm sure the authorities heard them and have listened."
Machel and Mandela were granted honorary doctorate degrees from Morgan. An honorary doctorate also was granted to James West, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who developed technology used in microphones.
For Morgan's graduates, the ceremony marked a triumphant celebration of many years of work.
Natasha Newton, 37, spent long hours in the car commuting from Landover in Prince George's County to Morgan's Baltimore campus for classes in construction management. She earned a bachelor's degree with honors and landed a job as a project engineer with the firm Barton Malow.
"The last two years, that has been my life — in the car," she said.
Newton said she found Morgan to be a close-knit family, especially in her major, which had 10 graduates on Saturday.
"It feels more like a family versus a school. It's a sense of home," she said.
Chasidy Taylor, 35, moved her family — including two children — from Montgomery, Ala., to Baltimore so she could study elementary education at Morgan. She said professors were accommodating to her needs as a nontraditional student, even if sometimes she had to bring her children to class.
Taylor now has a job teaching in the Harford County schools. She doesn't know which school or which grade, but is looking forward to the first day of class.
"I'm super excited. I'm shopping for things for my classroom. I can't wait to get in there, doing my own thing, changing some lives," she said.
Fellow elementary education graduate Tyneika Brown wore a graduation cap decorated with sequins and puffy paint by her little sisters. She struggled being far away from her hometown of Preston on the Eastern Shore, seeing her friends back home making money while she was away at college. But she stuck it out.
"It was not easy to be here, I was homesick," she said.
Brown has something to look forward to after graduation: She'll return home to Caroline County for a teaching job.