When Tyrell Dortch was 19 years old, his best friend was shot and killed. Years later, when he was working at a local youth center, a young man he was mentoring lost a sister in a drive-by shooting.
Dortch, a lifelong Cambridge resident, recalled these heartbreaking and life-altering events before a rapt crowd in the Washburn Auditorium. He was the keynote speaker and recipient of the Community Leader Award at the 3rd annual Selase Williams Unity Gala, held Thursday, April 25.
As hard as it was, Dortch said he channeled these adversities to fuel his passion to continue working with youth. Now, he directs the Teen Program and the Boys II Men Program at the Moses Youth Center in Cambridge.
“One of the biggest reasons why I do this work is that our young people are our future,” said Dorch. “It might sound cliché, like an afterschool special, but I tell people all the time: Don’t wait until you’re old to start caring about young people. It’s our duty to make sure we’re empowering them and lifting them up.”
Dortch’s poignant speech capped off a joyful and inspiring black-tie dinner and ceremony that celebrated the successes of graduating students and the impact of Lesley community members on social justice and diversity.
“A night like this is what Lesley is all about,” Interim President Richard Hansen said during his remarks. “We gather together and we respect each other… We think about what we’ve accomplished this year and what we’re going to accomplish going forward.”
Graduating students from the Threshold Program, the Urban Scholars Initiative, the Center for the Adult Learner and graduating students associated with the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Student Inclusion were recognized on stage during the ceremony and received certificates and cords.
Jen Serowick, assistant vice president for adult learning programs, spoke about the honor of overseeing the more than 100 graduating adult learners in the Class of 2019.
“In higher education, we sometimes take for granted the path our students take. For adult learners, it’s rarely four years and it’s rarely a smooth journey,” said Dr. Serowick. “They have jobs, children and families – and still they persist. I’m humbled every day by their stories. You wouldn’t believe their stories. Our whole team is humbled by you and your nontraditional journeys to this really successful day.”
Maritsa Barros, executive director of the Urban Scholars Initiative (USI), hailed the largest cohort in USI history. She noted that 22 of the 26 students who entered four years ago will earn their degrees this May, and that USI has grown to a program with 96 students.
“Within USI, we always talk about dreaming big, digging deep and searching for your life’s purpose,” said Barros. “As you get ready to cross that stage in a few weeks, I want you to be sure you do not forget to dream. Let your dreams be greater than your fears. … Go out there and be extraordinary.”
Echoing Dortch’s message to seek inspiration amid adversity, Barros encouraged graduates to “fail forward.”
“When faced with adversity, look out for two things: the lesson, and the blessing,” said Barros. “If you do not work through the adversity, you will not get to the lesson and the blessing.”
Awards and celebrations
Complete with a red carpet, photo booth and dance party, the gala also featured an awards ceremony that recognized community members striving to enhance the experiences of students with historically-marginalized identities.
The following people were honored with awards:
Social Justice Advisor Award
- Professor Dalia Llera
Social Activism Through the Arts Award
- Undergraduate student: Katya Zinn
- Graduate student: Corrine Mina
Student Impact Award
- Undergraduate: Vita Franjul
- Graduate: Kristin Capezio
- Undergraduate: Jeannine Hernandez
- Graduate: Krystal Garcia
Luke Baldwin Award
- Diana Restrepo, an adult learner
Community Leader Award
- Tyrell Dortch
The Selase Williams Unity Gala is named in honor of retired Lesley Provost Selase Williams. The event was hosted by the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Student Inclusion, the Urban Scholars Initiative and the Lesley Center for the Adult Learner.
The video was produced by Senavision Productions.