While any high school or college student qualifies to wear a Kente stole at their graduation, the display should hold a deep, personal significance for the wearer. Stoles were first used by the Catholic clergy in the 12th century, worn to distinguish rank or promotion within their hierarchy. Not long after, stoles were adopted by the earliest universities, each color or pattern being worn to identify the graduate’s major or academic or extracurricular achievement. Today, the West Africa-inspired Kente version is no different; wearing the garment at graduation carries historic, specific symbolism at schools around the world.
Naturally, the majority of students that display the distinctively Ghanaian fabric are of African descent. For them, among other things, it has the direct representation of union with their ancestral heritage. Many black students might also wear Kente graduation stoles as a sign of solidarity with other Africans and their displaced descendants around the world.
However, Kente stoles can also signify any hurdle for the wearer that might make academic success uniquely difficult for them. This allows Kente’s symbolism to overlap with many personal struggles regardless of the person’s ethnicity or skin color. While it’s less common, many non-black students have proudly and ceremoniously displayed their Kente stole at their graduation commencements.
For many graduates, mostly at colleges and universities, wearing Kente stoles is a school sponsored tradition, the stoles being ceremoniously donned onto participating students before the main commencement event. This year, thousands of students around the world will graduate with Kente stoles.