Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs emerged victorious once again. You can now address him as Dr. Combs.
Howard University, the prestigious historically black institution of education stationed in Northwest D.C. since 1867, is known for its notable alumni and celebrated homecoming festivities. Despite the attention it receives, Howard’s homecoming is far less important in magnitude than another annual occurrence: Graduation. On Saturday, one of its most renowned former students, Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, delivered the convocation oration and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humanities. Of all his name changes, including the recent switch back to "Puff Daddy," the christening of Dr. Sean Combs is the most powerful. Furthermore, all controversy regarding his appointment as graduation speaker fizzled out, because Combs did what he's always done in the end—succeeded.
The announcement that Combs would serve as the speaker at Howard’s 146th Commencement ceremony was met with skepticism. On one hand, there was the ecstatic graduating class who can now stake a claim in the "Who had the best graduation speaker?" debate. This group bleeds over into the next category: Combs supporters who were just happy to see the man add something else to an already impressive resume. But there was also the crowd who didn’t believe Combs was an appropriate selection as a graduation speaker for frivolous reasons.
After completing two years at Howard, Combs dropped out in 1990. The former business major made the decision to take the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work for Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records. For some, Combs' status as a college dropout destroyed his credibility as a college graduation speaker. Do the same people recall that Oprah Winfrey, the 2007 commencement speaker, dropped out of Tennessee State University in 1976 to start her career? Or how about the fact that Maya Angelou, another previous speaker, never even went to college. In the end, the massive controversy surrounding his selection was unwarranted, because he proved to be the best person for the job.
By selecting Combs, Howard picked the ideal speaker in terms of relevance to the audience and university. Students still flock to Howard inspired by Combs and the empire he’s built. He's a relatable figure, someone who could truly rouse graduates with his words of motivation, and because of their shared experience. The fact that Sean Combs never completed his undergraduate studies at Howard is irrelevant. It didn't stop him from conquering life in various avenues, just like it didn't stop him from fulfilling his responsibility as commencement speaker, which was reaching listeners. The critics, who he’s shot past in life, can't take that away from him. Also, considering Howard's recent financial struggles and previous president Dr. Sidney Ribeau's sudden election to step down early in the school year, this was a perfect way to end it on a high note.
"I want to thank everyone who made it possible for me to come back home," Combs said. Interim Howard University President Dr. Wayne Frederick introduced Combs as a "son of Howard," and Combs himself said the Howard community—from professors to classmates—became his family when he was in need. Even if you set out on a journey—like college, for example—you can always come home to your family. Speaking of family, Combs said that learning the true nature of his father’s death in a drug deal gone awry while at Howard was a pivotal moment in his life.
"I made a conscious effort to follow the entrepreneurial spirit of my father, the legal way," he said. That led to his decision to take the opportunity at Uptown Records, a decision he revealed that his Howard professors supported. The decision to leave school isn’t an easy one. I watched people do it during my time at Howard, and it didn’t always work out for them. Saying Combs' decision paid off is quite the understatement, so that’s even more reason for the Howard community to celebrate his success. That, and the fact that he credits those two years at Howard with shaping who he is.
Nobody is going to take you to the front of the line—you need to push to the front of the line.
"Howard University didn’t just change my life. It entered my soul, my heart, my being and my spirit," he told the crowd, noting that Howard showed him the world was bigger than his native New York. "And even though I only completed two years here at Howard, it was the greatest two years of my life." The most important lesson he learned at Howard, even in just two years, is what everyone who attends Howard learns: If you want anything in life, you have to get it on your own. "Nobody is going to take you to the front of the line—you need to push to the front of the line," he said. I’d go a step further and say that if you wait in line at Howard University at all, your success in life will only be moderate because you’re exhibiting complacency. Whether you need to pull a Larry David-esque "chat and cut" or skip the line altogether, devising a plan to get to the front is metaphoric for advancement and achievement.
Howard breeds go-getters, people ready to sprint through the window of opportunity as soon as it’s cracked open. The passive and the timid will be trampled in the process, because that window doesn’t remain open indefinitely. Combs saw the window when he left school, and those valuable life lessons he got at Howard are what helped him attain the levels of success that he’s reached today. That ambition defines not only his career, but the "Howard way." What's more, the "Howard way" extends beyond success, it’s also about helping others, and Combs has pulled former classmates Mark Pitts, Harve Pierre and Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie up the ranks with him. That’s what family does.
College is about working towards an endgame, but that endgame isn’t just a degree, it’s success.
Combs used the anecdotal story of his involvement in the New York City Marathon back in 2003 to help explain Howard’s importance to him. He participated despite just eight weeks of preparation, and soon found his ill-prepared body failing him. He said that getting to Harlem and feeling the love and support of the community helped him finish the race, just like the Howard community helped him get to where he is now. "My Harlem family got me through the marathon, just like my Howard family got me and you to this point today." Again, family helping family is what life is about.
He also acknowledged that life is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a cliché, as he admitted, but he’s correct. College is a sprint. It goes by quickly, a brief duration in the grand scheme of life. College is also about working towards an endgame, but that endgame isn’t just a degree, it’s success. No one is foolish enough to question Combs' success, and perhaps he learned enough to obtain it in those two years at Howard. His time there wasn’t incomplete as much as it was accelerated. Still, he shared the importance of education with the class of 2014.
"You are prepared," Combs said, telling graduates that they’re in a better position to succeed than he was. That’s high praise coming from the head of one of the world’s most preeminent entertainment companies. After repeatedly asking the class of 2014 if they were aware of how powerful they are, Combs offered some advice: "I want you take the craziest dream you ever had, that dream that you’re too embarrassed to tell anyone about. And I want you to go after it." Those are more moving words from a man who’s achieved what most will not, and they—along with the rest of his speech—resonated with graduates.
Kristin Corry, who just earned a degree in print journalism, said she had been looking forward to Combs' speech since it was announced that he was delivering the commencement address. "Diddy made me realize a lot of things that I overlook. He stressed the fact that we are the face of a new generation, one that is always updated and always evolving," she said. Lesley Pace, who graduated with a degree in computer information systems, said that his words were uniquely inspiring. "I learned that all my power is within and that we, as the next catalysts for change, have the opportunity to shape the world we live in to be better for humanity." Clearly, Diddy's words got through to these graduates, meaning he did his job.
To all of the detractors, especially those from within the Howard community, I ask you to remember that the same aloof air of exclusivity—the belief that some are unworthy of a position or opportunity—is why historically black colleges and universities like Howard were created in the first place.
On another level, Saturday was Combs' graduation as well, and he treated it as such. In addition to the likes of French Montana, Bow Wow, Jermaine Dupri, will.i.am and BET executive Stephen Hill coming out to support him, Combs’ entire family was present. He went out for the same post-graduation Mother’s Day family meal that myself and other new Howard grads have experienced, and he documented the entire weekend on Instagram. It took over 20 years, but his day to hold a degree from Howard University finally came.
To all of the detractors, especially those from within the Howard community, I ask you to remember that the same aloof air of exclusivity—the belief that some are unworthy of a certain position or opportunity—is why historically black colleges and universities like Howard were created in the first place. By chiding Combs, you’re only spitting on your own heritage. How can you be mad at a black man who didn’t have a degree ultimately earning one through his actions? Check your perspective and think about that, while Dr. Sean Combs, entrepreneur and philanthropist, celebrates something else you’ll never accomplish.
Take that, world.
Julian Kimble, a summa cum laude graduate of Howard University, is proud to be part of the same legacy as Dr. Sean Combs. Follow him on Twitter.