Bears signal perseverance, purpose with bell ceremony

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Shaw University student Zaid Steele rings the bell.

By John McCann

RALEIGH, N.C.  — The bell tolled twice.

Two tugs from Shaw University senior Zaid Steele, and when the aspiring civil rights lawyer released the rope connected to the school’s bell, the sound was the musical arrangement Steele waited four years to hear.

“Ringing the bell freshman year is a door open to come in, and then ringing it your senior year is you closing it,” Steele said. “But I look at it as like a new chapter.”

Shaw University’s graduating seniors rang the bell before Thursday’s baccalaureate service on campus in Thomas J. Boyd Chapel. It’s tradition. And it’s something they were supposed to do as freshmen until it became one of many routine things the pandemic paused.

“I am a COVID baby coming into 2020 at Shaw University,” Steele said. “I do feel it was a tradition that our class missed.”

Yet Shaw University will award 129 bachelor’s degrees Saturday during its commencement ceremony that starts at 10 a.m. in the Raleigh Convention Center. The education earned is a testament to perseverance and being prepped for purpose, according to the Rev. Quientrell L. Burrell Jr., D.Min., the keynote speaker for the baccalaureate service.

“You have been transformed to transfer,” Burrell said. “You have been positioned and privileged to receive a quality education from an institution that gave minorities opportunities that others would not.”

Shaw University student Jaden Clark takes a tug during the annual bell ceremony on campus May 10, 2024.

The baccalaureate service at Shaw University is an opportunity to lean into its Baptist roots.

“Why do we do this? Because we know that Shaw’s existence is solely owed to God,” said Shaw University President and CEO Paulette R. Dillard, Ph.D.

It’s faith and works.

“You all are the class who began your matriculation during the pandemic,” said Shaw University Vice President for Academic Affairs Renata H. Dusenbury, Ph.D.  “Along with the pandemic, you lived through an unprecedented election, an attempt to overthrow the government, a war in Europe, another war in the Middle East and civil unrest on campuses across the country not seen since the 1960s.”

“You discovered yourself,” said Burrell, who mentioned the global unrest resulting in the loss of personal freedoms, the loss of lives. “You are better prepared for what awaits you. And guess what — they can’t take that from you: The knowledge you’ve gained. The stellar intellect. The smart creativity. The ignited passions. The clearer concepts.”

The preacher quoted hip-hop prophet Melle Mel to punctuate his point:

“It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under,” Burrell rapped to reinforce the message. “Life can take so much out of you, and it can take so much from you, which means you have to be intentional to engage in self-care, maintaining healthy relationships and finding balance in your life.”

Steele majored in communications, double minored in political science and psychology, interned at the N.C. General Assembly, landed a post-graduation internship with the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., plus secured opportunities to study abroad before law school in fall 2025.

“I went to school at Shaw University and did all of that,” said Steele, graduation mere hours away, the university bell closer still. “After today, we walk across that stage. It’s just like everything is coming together, saying our goodbyes and see you agains. I feel like that’s what that bell meant. And I’m not going to lie, it was very much a chill, even hearing it now. Hopefully, we hear it more times, because it shows how many Black leaders are walking into this world and are going to pursue their dreams.”