By Lauren Rearick
On Saturday, May 25, the United States Military Academy at West Point celebrated the graduation of one of its most racially diverse classes ever.
Thirty-four black women were among 950 graduates recognized at the 2019 ceremony, CNN reported. It was the largest class of black women to graduate from the 217-year-old school ever, breaking 2017’s record of 27 black women graduates. Among the 2019 graduating class were 223 women, the most to graduate from West Point since 1980; 110 black graduates; and 88 Latinx graduates, which Time reported is the highest number to ever graduate from the academy. (Some graduates belong to more than one identity group.)
Even with the academy’s overdue milestone in representation, the school has struggled with diversifying its attendance. Since 2013, West Point made continued efforts to enroll female students, and especially female students of color, the Associated Press reported. The academy had opened a diversity office and attempted to reach potential students in new areas across the United States.
The changes extended to staffing, too; in 2017, Lieutenant General Darryl Williams became the school’s first black superintendent.That same year, Simone Askew was named the first black woman to ever lead the Corps of Cadets.
West Point alumna Shalela Dowdy told CNN that she thought the school’s efforts to enroll non-white, non-male students were working. She graduated as one of 13 black woman graduates in 2012. “It's encouraging and inspiring to see leaders graduating from the school that are from all different kinds of backgrounds and represent the diversity of the army itself,” she said.
Cadet Bria Errington, a 2019 graduating cadet, told NBC News that she had struggled with being “the only woman of color, or even woman in general” in classes. Her experience was backed by classmate cadet Tiffany Welch-Baker, who told NBC News, “It hasn’t always been pretty.”
“There are some moments here where you feel like ‘am I worthy?’ Do I deserve to be here?'," she added.
Senior cadet Gabrielle Young told the Associated Press she felt the need to “prove that I belong here.” As a freshman at the academy, Young recalled a classmate telling her that she had only been accepted because she was a black woman. Despite her experience, Young had good things to say of her time at the school, noting, “I don’t think I would trade this experience for anything in the world. I know that I’ve accomplished a lot and I know that I’m prepared for whatever.”
Since Saturday’s ceremony, a photograph of the black women in 2019’s graduating class posing together went viral, the Associated Press pointed out. “I want women to be soldiers. I want these little black girls to say ‘hey, I can do it too. I have the strength to defy the odds,’” Welch-Baker said of the photo. “Which is what we did. We defied the odds.”