(SOUNDBITE OF HOWARD UNIVERSITY CLASS OF 2015 GRADUATION CEREMONY)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Go forth and operate in excellence and truth. Congratulations to the Class of 2015.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is graduation time for many this weekend. And that's the sound yesterday of some very happy members of Howard University's Class of 2015 here in Washington, D.C. Happy, yet still kind of in denial.
LEIGHTON WATSON: It's very surreal because I think a lot of people expect you to feel like you graduated earlier in the process. But it literally didn't hit me until I was walking off the stage and out.
KEVIN PETERMAN: I kind of feel like I'm coming back on Monday and going to class on Monday. But (laughter) in the back of my head, I realize that that's impossible (laughter). So it really kind of hasn't truly set in that it's over.
MARTIN: Those were the voices of Leighton Watson and Kevin Peterman, who along with Ariel Alford and Taylor Davis, have been talking with us as they approach the big day. We've been calling our conversations with them the Howard Project.
A few weeks back, we gathered the Howard students in our studio to do some reflecting on their college experience. Kevin was feeling grateful for all kinds of opportunities that came to him while in college that included some big trips.
PETERMAN: China, Japan, Ghana, Canada, doing research to get a college degree, even though I had to go into some huge debt for it.
ARIEL ALFORD: I share that.
PETERMAN: But I've got it, and it can't be taken away from me.
MARTIN: Taylor told us she was feeling optimistic, but that had not been the case before. She found out a few months ago that she has to retake some nursing classes in the fall so she didn't graduate with her friends yesterday.
TAYLOR DAVIS: When I came back to school at the beginning of the semester, it was a really difficult, like, hearing the word graduation. I would smile on the outside, but it really kind of, like, stung. But right now, I'm great.
MARTIN: Ariel needs to finish up some student teaching before she graduates in December. But in that moment when we talked with them, she was asking herself big questions about the future.
ALFORD: Are my convictions really my convictions, or were they just talking points? When does the rhetoric stop and the work begin? And, you know, sometimes people go through this radical phase in college, and then they sell out by the time they're 26. So I don't know. In my transitional period, I'm concerned about the type of woman I'm going to be, the type of community member I'm going to be. And I want my convictions to sustain themselves after I leave this space.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Over the last few months with the Howard Project, we've been checking in with our students on an almost-weekly basis. We asked them how it felt to share their observations and personal experiences about their senior year of college and then hear it broadcast back to them over the radio. Here's Kevin.
PETERMAN: I don't think that before this I would've necessarily called myself a reflective person just 'cause you get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life and life's experiences. And this has truly been a time where I could like center down in this space, whether it just be for a few minutes and just think about experiences, truly think about relationships, think about what made me who I am today my past four years.
WATSON: For me, it's definitely humbling because I didn't really feel like I even had a story to tell.
MARTIN: This is Leighton, who happened to be the former student body president at Howard.
WATSON: I felt very average, like I grew up middle-class to upper-middle-class. My parents are still together. And then the other thing is I think in the position that I have, I oftentimes get asked how I feel about topics. So like, how do I feel about police standards? How do I feel about the president's State of the Union? But, like, this - you all are asking me how do I feel about myself and my own experience - so being introspective in that way, I normally don't.
MARTIN: Taylor has taken a very deliberate approach to this project.
DAVIS: I want to insure that whenever I have an opportunity to open my mouth, I'm saying something that's reflective of my beliefs. And so my concern honestly has been with my faith and my blackness and wanting that to go out and to be heard.
MARTIN: Howard is one of this country's historically black universities. And it's just about a mile from NPR headquarters. When we first connected with Taylor, Kevin, Ariel and Leighton, we wanted to know where these four students got their news and whether they connected to the stories they were reading, watching or listening to. Our conversations with them over all these weeks evolved out of those first questions. Here's Kevin.
PETERMAN: One of the greatest pieces of this is you don't turn on the radio every day and hear young black people talking. So this is a humbling experience, not because I feel that I'm speaking on behalf of my race and behalf of my gender within my race, but for once, we've been able to come and truly craft our own narrative.
MARTIN: This is how Ariel sees it.
ALFORD: If this is supposed to be a snapshot of what people who look like us and our are age - what we were thinking about, I hope that the future generations that we're speaking to or even the present that we're speaking to know that we're thinking about more than just what we're going to wear and what date we're trying to go on and what job we're going to get.
ALFORD: We're thinking...
WATSON: We are thinking about that.
ALFORD: Yeah, not that we ain't thinking about that.
WATSON: It took time to pick out this tie today.
ALFORD: You know what I mean? Like, we look good.
DAVIS: But there is a depth to the ocean.
ALFORD: But there's depth...
WATSON: Pretty much, absolutely.
ALFORD: ...To this so I'm excited, and this is rare.
MARTIN: That was Leighton Watson, Ariel Alford, Taylor Davis and Kevin Peterman of Howard University. For the last few months, we've been talking with the four seniors about their college experience.
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