Hundreds gathered at the Hathaway-Howard Fine Arts Auditorium on Sept. 7 to hear Tatyana Ali speak during University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's Welcome Week Distinguished Lecture series. Ali, who is best known for her role on the NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” as Ashley Banks, spoke to over 500 students, faculty, staff and community members about the importance of receiving an education.
“Don't squander those opportunities to absorb the greatness that surrounds you and to maybe have some of it rub off,” Ali said. Socializing is important. But, every time you choose to go the library instead of a party, it's an act of self-love.”
For the past five years, the Lyceum event has brought celebrities and distinguished speakers from all walks of life to the UAPB campus. One of last year's speakers was rapper and activist David Banner.
“It gives us another opportunity for students to be in the presence of someone that has accomplished something in life and they can ask them questions,” said UAPB Public Information Officer Tisha Arnold. “You don't have to tweet them. You don't have to Facebook message them. You are right there in front of them and you can ask how they made it in life?”
According to Arnold, the goal of Welcome Week is to inspire students for the upcoming academic school year. The series is just one of many events geared towards helping students have what she describes as a “stellar year.”
“The goal is to motivate them and empower them and to let them see someone that is already there,” Arnold said. “You can't be what you can't see. So, we're very selective about who we choose to present before the students. We've had someone in different genres. We've had a music producer. We've had an actress. We've had different types of people to let them know it's not one way to make it.”
A fan of the Lyceum events, 20-year-old visual arts major Brianna Bush enjoys hearing what the speakers have to say. Bush sees the series as a way for others to get a head start on building their future.
“It's very important especially for the freshman that's coming in,” she said of the program. “It shows what UAPB is about and how they help young, black people or any race to help educate them about people who have already done it or people who are going through it. It helps me get knowledge on what their perspective is to be successful or what can help me in my future career.
Reflecting back on her experiences growing up as child while balancing books and acting, Ali talked about her parents dream for her and her siblings — education.
“They came here as teenagers,” Ali said of her parents, who are immigrants. “They came here for the American dream and a part of that dream was college — a part of that dream was education. It was instilled in me. It was drilled in me. I have two younger sisters and it was the same with them.”
Ali, who had dreams of her own, which included attending an Ivy League institution as a young girl, graduated from Harvard University. Despite backlash from naysayers about her mission to go to college, she found the strength to push through with the support of family, prayer and meditation.
“A lot of people said I was putting my career in danger by going to Harvard,” she said. “People said I'd be losing if I went to school. How could I lose? By whose standards? The entertainment world?”
Students had an opportunity to get more personal with Ali during a Q&A session, which prompted questions about her musical preferences, acting style and ways to stay motivated during hard times. Ali, who discussed prayer and meditation as a way for her to stay motivated during her journey in both acting and life, inspired students like 19-year-old computer science sophomore Christian Smith.
“You really should look inside to find the person that you really are,” said Smith describing what he took away from Ali's message. “When times get tough, pray your way through.”
Senior sociology major Curtis Rolfe said he was struck by Ali's determination to follow her dreams of getting an education even though she was met with resistance from others.
“It was empowering,” he said. “You have to find your inner self to get through the off times in life.”
With the mantra of “if I go in, the world will open up to me,” Ali reminded students that they are a representation of somebody and that opportunities are endless if they are open to receiving them by doing well in school. Additionally, she told students it was vital to do three things while furthering their education — invest in yourself, love yourself and be self-disciplined.
“The power of education is not the diploma even though walking across that stage is such a proud moment for you and your family and your friends,” Ali said. “What you earn is something intangible. It's something fortifying. You become changed by your experience here.”