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As Edgewood College graduates prepared to receive their degrees Sunday, their classmate Mamadou Jawo, who grew up in The Gambia, a small country in West Africa, told them they have the power to create “a just and compassionate world.”

Jawo, who described himself as a “proud African immigrant” from “the smiling coast of Africa, The Gambia,” pointed to injustices he sees in society, and called on his fellow graduates to work toward solving them. He said racism, sexism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia are all pressing issues that need to be addressed.

“We have the opportunity to step up, demand better, and help in solving these problems,” Jawo told the crowd of more than 400 graduates and around 2,500 family members and friends at the Alliant Energy Center. The graduates received bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees in areas ranging from education to computer science, nursing to business finance.

Edgewood college graduates

More than 400 Edgewood College graduates received bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees at the Alliant Energy Center. Around 2,500 friends and family members cheered them on as they got their diplomas. 

At the ceremony, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the court’s first female and longest-serving justice, was recognized with an honorary doctor of law degree. She is retiring this year.

“Fortunately, I had to work much less for this degree than you, today’s graduates, did for yours,” joked Abrahamson, who said she was proud to become a part of Edgewood’s history.

Kelli Chelberg, who received her doctor of education, also had lessons to share with graduates. She is now a faculty member at the College of Menominee Nation.

Chelberg, who wrote her dissertation on ways to connect with tribal students to improve their education, said she never expected her work to have the impact that it does because she wasn’t the most innovative or at the top of her class.

“If I can do it, anyone can,” she said.

Sara Kroenke

Sara Kroenke receives her doctoral degree in nursing practice in leadership at Sunday's Edgewood College commencement ceremony.

She told them to seek God’s direction, take risks and embrace opportunities.

“We don’t grow when things are easy,” Chelberg said. “We grow when we face challenges.”

Caps for the undergraduates bore messages such as: “Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world,” “Do small things with great love,” “Defied the odds” and “Be brave.” Others read, “You can call me Ms. Flor” and “Nurse Katie,” for the aspiring teacher and nurse.

Criminal justice cap

A graduate dons a "Criminal Justice" cap at Sunday's Edgewood College commencement ceremony at the Alliant Energy Center. 

Passion for justice

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For Jawo, he wants to create change by becoming a criminal defense attorney or judge. Now with a degree in criminal justice, Jawo will attend the UW-Madison law school in the fall.

Jawo came to the United States in 2013 with his siblings to join his mother, who immigrated to the U.S. when Jawo was only 6. They would have joined her sooner, but it took a long time to get visas. Jawo said his dad is still in The Gambia, but his family hopes he can join them in the U.S. soon.

Being a first-generation college student made some aspects of college, such as figuring out financial aid or coming up with tuition, more challenging. He received several grants and scholarships, including the the Blake Family Scholarship, which helped lessen the financial burden.

Meshan Adams

Meshan Adams, who graduated from Edgewood College with a degree in sociology focused on human services, admires his diploma. 

But his passion for law started in The Gambia.

Growing up, Jawo said, he learned a lot about the criminal justice system because his dad was a police officer. Jawo would visit him at the station and learn about the different offenses people committed.

Jawo said he became more impassioned to go into law while working for Briarpatch Youth Services, a Madison nonprofit that provides programs for at-risk youths in Dane County, and as a court-appointed special advocate for children.

For the kids

Jawo plans to work in the juvenile justice system so he can be a role model for youngsters who have fallen through the cracks.

“The kids that are entangled in the system are just that — they’re kids,” he said.

Jawo said he wants to help steer them out of the juvenile justice system, so they don’t get caught in the system as adults.

Sophia Chadli

Sophia Chadli, who received her degree in communication studies at Sunday's Edgewood College graduation ceremony, holds up her diploma to the crowd. 

He encouraged graduates to find where they can be of most help in the world.

“The needs of the world are a lot,” Jawo said. “So graduates, find what you are passionate and good at, and help in positively contributing to our amazing planet earth.”

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.