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JCSU President Valerie Kinloch Speaks At High School Alma Mater


Johnson C. Smith University President Dr. Valerie Kinloch ’96 enjoyed a homecoming in her hometown of Charleston when she served as the commencement speaker for the graduating class of 2024 for Burke High School, Kinloch’s alma mater.  

“What a joy it is to be back home. What a joy it is to be back at the high school that loved me and nurtured me, Burke High School, and my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina,” Kinloch told an enthusiastic audience as she began her speech.  

Kinloch connected with her audience by authentically sharing her story, which resonated with many members of the graduating class. When Kinloch said she graduated from James Simmons Elementary School and Rivers Middle School, the class erupted in spontaneous applause, as many of them had also attended those institutions. She noted that her mother and aunt both graduated from Burke High School, along with her brothers and many of her family and friends. She told them how she was a proud product of the working-class neighborhood in which her parents raised her.  

Kinloch told the graduates she is a first-generation college student and the first in her immediate family to attend a university. As a high school student, she characterized herself as a tall, young, shy, skinny, awkward, dark-skinned girl and credits her educators with giving her the confidence to believe in herself.  

“They taught me to love myself, love my hair, my skin color, my height, my culture and this Gullah Geechee language that we actually speak,” Kinloch emphasized.  

She thanked the educators who taught her and encouraged her as a student, some of whom attended the graduation ceremony. 

“Burke High School has always cultivated within us a faith to know that we can do anything we set our minds to and a strong desire to say to all the naysayers who whispered in our ears that nothing good ever comes from Burke High School, ‘look at us!’” Kinloch said, eliciting cheers from the audience.    

She credits them with helping her find her voice and learning to never apologize for who she is: a Charleston-born and raised Black woman educator who is a believer, friend, counselor, researcher and the 15th President of her undergraduate alma mater, JCSU. 

Kinloch told the graduates she used to sit on her parents’ porch in Charleston, playing school with her neighborhood friends. She noted that she was always a teacher and a principal, foreshadowing her later accomplishments as an educator. Kinloch explained that she sat in that same house, the only house she had ever known in Charleston, reading books until she could recite them and telling others that she would one day write books. Kinloch has since written nine books.  

“I tell you these things about me because I hope that you too will understand who you are and never shy away from the realities that have made you who you are regardless of what the struggles might be, regardless of what the challenges may eventually be. To understand your role in this world and to understand that no one can tell you what you can’t do unless you tell yourself what you will not do,” Kinloch explained.  

She told the students to dream big for themselves and charged them with making it their responsibility to show up, listen, care for themselves and extend that care to others. She left the students with some words of advice.  

“I’m asking you to carefully understand the people you allow into your hearts and into your lives,” she said.  “I’m asking you to think about what you want to do and not what everyone else tells you that you have to do. I’m asking you to stand on the beautiful side of justice, and when you see wrong, you interrupt wrong, and you do not do wrong unto other people. I’m asking you to create the life that you want to create and to live it without apology, without question, without becoming what someone else wants you to become. I’m asking you to be bold and brave enough to say that you can be successful, you will be successful, and your success will always be connected to the fact that you are Burke High School graduates.” 

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