In a Bowie State University commencement ceremony punctuated by shouts and cheers from graduates and their families, none was louder than the rousing standing ovation for the family of 2nd Lt. Richard W. Collins III, who accepted a degree on his behalf Tuesday.
Collins, a 23-year-old business administration and ROTC student who was commissioned an Army officer last week, was stabbed to death on the University of Maryland campus early Saturday in an attack that authorities are investigating as a possible hate crime. Sean Christopher Urbanski, 22, a white Maryland student from Severna Park, is charged with first- and second-degree murder and is being held without bail.
Collins' cap and gown were draped over an empty seat during the ceremony at the Xfinity Center basketball arena in College Park, where the University of Maryland observed a moment of silence for him at the start of its commencement Sunday. Hundreds filled an auditorium in Bowie on Monday evening for a candlelight vigil for their fallen classmate.
At the Bowie State commencement ceremony Tuesday, Collins' father — a military veteran himself — was escorted to the stage by a cohort of newly commissioned ROTC graduates.
Richard W. Collins II accepted his son's degree, hugged Bowie State President Mickey L. Burnim, then pointed skyward.
Nearly every speaker mentioned Collins.
"We gather this morning with heavy hearts," Burnim said. "Our planned purpose was to celebrate the achievements of 650 new Bowie State University graduates. This is still our task, but we do so with great sadness, for one of our graduates — in the prime of his life — has fallen victim to an unprovoked assault, in yet one more manifestation of the senseless violence permeating our society."
Burnim, who is retiring next month after 11 years as president, led the graduates and their families in a moment of silence for Collins. In his commencement address, he urged the Class of 2017 to promote "the peace, harmony and love that seem to be so lacking in our country and our world today."
Yasmeen Jordan, the senior class president, told her graduating classmates that as new alumni of Maryland's first historically black university, "it is imperative for us to dream."
"Within our dreams, eras will be born, businesses will be created, policies will be reformed, and bodies will be healed, if we only dream," she said.
Ramona Morant, president of the graduate student association, quoted from the New Testament Epistle of James: "Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him."
"One of our angels has received his crown," she said.
Burnim, 68, shared three lessons with the graduates: plan ahead, always strive for perfection and grow from failure.
"Life is a precious gift," he told them. "You don't want to waste any opportunity."
Robert L. Caret, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, offered the condolences of all the state's public universities to Collins' family, friends and classmates.
"All of Maryland mourns the loss of this exceptional young man," he said.
University of Maryland President Wallace Loh sent his condolences, as did Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who attended Tuesday's commencement.
The remembrances of Collins played a poignant role in the ceremony, but the atmosphere in the arena was far from funereal. The graduating students chanted "BSU!" and family members yelled and clapped so much that Burnim paused the proceedings several times to allow the hubbub to subside. Many of the graduates leaned in front of the jumbotron camera as they crossed the stage to wave, dance and make faces.
Kiara Hall, 28, of Cheltenham received a master's degree in human resources development. Outside the arena after the ceremony, she picked up her daughter, Aliza, 2, and chanted: "We did it! We did it!"
Hall and other graduates called the tributes to Collins "beautiful." As a mother, she said, she was heartbroken for Collins' parents, who never got to watch him graduate.
"It's something every parent wants to see, and that moment was taken away from them," she said.
Malik Mickens, 24, of Baltimore, a business administration and marketing graduate who worked in a university cafeteria, remembered serving Collins.
"He was a very soulful, down-to-earth person," he said. "He'd give you the shirt off his back."
Asked how he felt to be graduating, Mickens grinned.
"In short, it's breathtaking," he said. "Taking over the world, one step at a time."
Dominick Brooks and a few of his fraternity brothers cleared a space in the crowd of family photographs to perform a step routine. The 23-year-old graduate, who majored in music technology, said Alpha Phi Alpha "gave me the support of a brotherhood and stood by me through tough times."
His mother, Lynna Burgess, 46, of Abingdon couldn't help but smile and point at herself, saying "Proud Mommy! Proud Mommy!"
Derrick Addo, 21, of New Carrollton compared receiving his computer science degree to crossing a long-awaited finish line.
"I always dreamt of this day," he said.
Brittany Johnson, who graduated from the honors program with a degree in psychology, cried into her parents' shoulders on the crowded sidewalk outside the arena. She said the day was "overwhelming."
Graduation represented an exciting new chapter, she said, but she was painfully aware of Collins' absence.
"He was supposed to be here," said Johnson, 21, of Baltimore. "Everyone was cheering when we crossed the stage, but when we sat back down, he was supposed to be here."