Jamal Parker Delivers a Commencement Message to His Fellow Seniors
By: Nick Santangelo
Today is the day. The College of Liberal Arts’ (CLA) 2018 undergraduate class walks today. Yesterday, CLA’s Paige Hill was the student commencement speaker for the entire university. Tomorrow, many of our graduates have big plans. But today, Jamal Parker, a senior majoring in Africology and African American studies and minoring in English, has a message for graduating owls. Parker knows the sacrifices you’ve made, and he’s seen the steps you’ve conquered. He’s been right there with you the whole way, inspiring him to write a poem featured in a Temple University 2018 commencement video.
“For all the students here, few of their experiences are the same, but there are a few things that we all share,” says Parker, of his poem, Commencement. “We all have probably gone by the Bell Tower. We all have probably walked through campus and seen these specific sites. So, for me, visually, I just wanted to cover sites that every Temple student knows and anyone who has the kind of work ethic that being a Temple Owl is about knows.”
Parker himself won’t actually walk today. Two years after switching to CLA from the Klein College of Media and Communication in his sophomore year, he’s still got one more semester ahead of him. But Parker is still part of the Class of 2018, with his graduation coming this December.
I realized I had to step my game up
He made the major switch when he realized most of the people he was surrounding himself with at Temple were in CLA’s Africology and African American Studies and Sociology departments. Born into a military family, Parker has lived as far away as Japan, but he went to high school in Florida within a couple hours of where Trayvon Martin lived. The sort of racial dynamics that led to Martin’s tragic death in 2012 were something Parker was aware of but didn’t go out of his way to explore. That changed when he came to North Broad.
“After my freshman year of college and doing writing and performance art based on African Americans and the black experience, that kind of pushed me into the major,” he says. “There was a course on African American Studies taught by Christopher Roberts, and I was just hooked immediately, and I’ve stayed with it since.”
While it turned out he was less sure about what he wanted to study than he may have thought when first coming to Temple, Parker’s choice of institution was never in doubt. Temple was his top choice, making it easy for him to select it over his other options when he received his acceptance letter in December 2013. He saw the university and its host city of Philadelphia as places that would foster his creative writing and advance his career.
Four-and-a-half years later, he regrets nothing about the decision. Parker says he’s been “surrounded” by supportive faculty who’ve shown him connections in art, politics and society to Afrocentrism. They were connections he never knew existed. Meanwhile, the competition from other students and local writers and poets pushed Parker to improve himself.
“Since I stepped foot on Temple’s campus, I wanted to be involved in performances of spoken words,” he recalls. “I realized I had to step my game up. There are people at this school and who are in Philadelphia who are amazing, phenomenal poets and writers. “
He got involved in poetry groups like Philly Pigeon and Temple’s Babel Poetry Collective and attended international competitions including the College Invitational Poetry Slam. The Slam is held on a different campus each year. This year it was Temple’s turn to host, and our owls didn’t disappoint, taking home the Best Poem Award for a piece about Philadelphia-born rapper Meek Mill’s incarceration.
Parker eventually became Babel’s artistic director. He learned how to manage the role— which involves workshopping others’ poetry and running everything from performance scenes to lighting to wardrobe—by shadowing former director Kai Davis, CLA, ’16. The role taught Parker about working hard but also about not working so hard that you’re stretched too thin.
“It’s been beautiful because you see the fruits of your labor and your hard work,” says Parker of watching the performances he directed.
Being artistic director gave Parker a chance to help others improve their poems and performances. After he graduates next December, helping others is something he’d like to continue doing in some capacity. He’s considering a move out west somewhere, possibly to take on an arts-based fellowship or residency or even to attend grad school. But whatever comes next for the young poet, he wants it to involve community work with youths. That’s one of his passions.
“I had a lot of mentors who helped me out, and I just want to be able to give back,” explains Parker.
He’s determined to find a way to combine that with his other passion, writing. It’s been a part of Parker’s life since, fascinated by comic books and superheroes, he began writing short stories in third grade. By the time he was in sixth grade, his mother had enrolled him in a creative writing program.
Your journey is your own
A lot of people have asked him what he loves about writing. In answering the question, Parker ping-pongs around thoughts of stories and narration, of three recent A’s he got on essays and the story of his mother putting him in that writing program. Ultimately, though, he stops searching for a new answer and gives his most honest one.
“I feel like I’ve been asked this question a lot of times, and I try to make it sound different each time,” says Parker. “I just am genuinely passionate about words, and I’m passionate about crafting a tale that people can listen to and be like, ‘Wow, that really made me think about a topic differently,’ or ‘That changed my life.’”
Life-changing experiences are, of course, what Temple University and the College of Liberal Arts are in the business of creating. For both those students just completing theirs today and those yet to begin them in the fall, Parker has another message.
“Your journey is your own, and the way you navigate your life is important. People are going to be proud of you and supportive of you no matter what. And that’s the thing I’ve learned throughout the whole last year.”