Virtual ‘Keeper of the Dream’ highlights students breaking down cultural barriers

This year’s Keeper of the Dream Scholarship Award Celebration was watched on screens across the campus community on Monday, Jan. 18 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

The 29th iteration of the award was given to Adriana Colin-Diaz, Maryam Nissan, Lacaya Smith, Teyler Thompkins, Mariama Toure, Alaya Freeman, Rachel Jackson, Ja’Laaiyah Gordon and Niajah Hood. 

Each of these students were selected based on their demonstration of leadership qualities and efforts combating racial and cultural barriers — students who embody Dr. King’s dream. 

“We’ve seen the next generation of organizers and leaders who’ve helped provide critical resources during the pandemic and who have also led protests,” said Omar Brown-El, senior director of the Center of Multicultural Initiatives (CMI). “Today, we honor students who are keeping the dream of freedom and liberation for all alive.”

Each student received a $5,000 scholarship. Despite not being able to celebrate in person, each recipient was honored for their work in the Oakland University community virtually.

“By their dedication and engagement, they are breaking down racial and cultural stereotypes, promoting unity and playing a vital role in fostering a campus environment that is rich in diversity and multiculturalism,” President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz said.

While the Keeper of the Dream ceremony usually features a keynote speaker, the pandemic limited the traditional celebration. Despite that, this year’s event allowed the honorees to share their own stories and what the Keeper of the Dream meant to them personally. 

“Dr. King’s vision of equality is especially important now with the current situation we are living in, the Black Lives Matter movement attests to this,” Nissan said. “Although Dr. King’s set the motion for change, there is still so much work that needs to be done.”

Between each presentation of the scholars, powerful images of diversity movements — past and present — were shown. Clips from the Civil Rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement took the forefront. The honorees drew parallels from their own experiences of working to overcome inequity and connected it back to Dr. King’s message. 

Smith, who is involved in local nonprofit work with her family and is going into early education, uses her role in the community to bring equality.

Being an African-American female student in a predominantly white institution, I have encountered these situations [of inequalities] personally,” Smith said. “Having an opportunity to work in the Center for Multicultural Initiatives office has equipped me with the strategies to be able to adjust inequalities on and off campus. Because of this, I am now prepared to go into my field of study and be an advocate for myself and others.”

Recipients of the Keeper of the Dream Award each spoke about how their personal racial and cultural experiences have shaped their worldview, what that meant to them as an OU student and how they hope to continue working toward Dr. King’s vision in the future.

Thompkins, the general manager at WXOU, shared how she was able to use her platform as a space for conversations about social and political issues to take place on campus.

“It is important to me to promote and work towards racial understanding of my environment because regardless of where you come from, I believe individuals can come together and find common ground,” Thompkins said. 

Each recipient is deeply involved in the OU community and hope to continue enacting change for the better. 

“Growing up in Guinea, my parents taught me that understanding race was my responsibility, and I will be held accountable for my actions,” Toure said. “As I’ve grown up, they have continued to inspire me to break down cultural barriers. These barriers have changed over time, but the prevalence is what makes them relevant today.”

This year’s scholarship and visual sponsors included Meritor, Willis Towers Watson, Autoliv, Comerica Bank, Magna International, Oakland University Credit Union, Alice Shotwell Gustafson Keeper of the Dream Endowment, Lynne and Lia McIntosh Scholarship, Oakland University Alumni Association, Marshall Family Scholar Foundation, KeyBank and Rocket Mortgage.