As College of Communication senior Tori Gilbeau delivers her Commencement speech on behalf of Boston University’s class of 2014 Sunday, she adds one more milestone to her list of trailblazing accomplishments, becoming the first African-American woman to speak at a BU commencement ceremony.
At 17 years old, Gilbeau became the first person in her family to attend college. Out of five generations that preceded her, she was the first woman in her family to turn 18 without a child, and during her junior year of college, she became the first of her family members to leave the country through a study abroad program in China. But for Gilbeau, “it isn’t so much about being the first.”
“I do it for my family and for my community,” she said. “I hope I can be the reason somebody feels like, ‘Why not?’ I want people to see that and to see that you don’t have to come from this cookie-cutter life to do amazing things. There is no formula to being great. There just isn’t.”
Originally from Los Angeles, Gilbeau moved to Atlanta in high school. As a committed dancer in a high school magnet program, Gilbeau’s practicing and performing consumed her.
In her senior year, Gilbeau was awarded a full-tuition leadership scholarship to BU by the Posse Foundation, a program that sends urban high school students in “posses” of 10 to top-tier colleges and universities across the country. Gilbeau said Posse was not only crucial to securing her a spot in BU’s class of 2014 but sustaining her throughout her four years in college.
“If it wasn’t for Posse, I wouldn’t be at BU,” she said. “When I compare myself to your average BU student, my grades weren’t there, my SAT scores weren’t there. As a high school student, that’s all you hear. That’s all that’s important.”
Since enrolling in BU as a Posse Scholar, Gilbeau has proven to herself and others that students don’t need a “formula” to succeed. Entering college with her heart set on dancing, she joined three intensive teams before realizing the commitment was overburdening. Gilbeau then refocused her energy into her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, of which she is now the vice president, treasurer and secretary.
Thanks to support and encouragement from her fellow Posse scholars, Gilbeau also changed her academic plans throughout her years at BU. Although she began college intent on leaving with a business degree, she’ll now be graduating with a degree in Public Relations and a concentration in Chinese.
“They [the Posse scholars] heard my struggles of what I was going through in the School of Management, and they pushed me to just take the chance and switch, because I was really, really scared,” Gilbeau said. “In my mind, I had it set I was to graduate with a business major. And they told me, ‘we see you’re so much more passionate about the things that you’re going to do in COM, and you should just take that chance.’ They were the support system for me to do that.”
Allison Adair, Gilbeau’s Posse mentor, former BU professor and current associate professor of English at Boston College, said Gilbeau’s decision to change from SMG to COM allowed her to find her passion, let go of her doubts and reach her full potential as a student.
“When she arrived at BU, she was not fully aware of how much power her story and she already had,” Adair said. “The main change she’s had over the last few years is a shift from intensity to power. I would advise her to never forget her own power, the power that the BU degree offers her, that the BU experience offers her, that she’ll have as an alumni and just her own inner power that she arrives with.”
Through the variety of changes Gilbeau made during her college career, she said she has placed her family at the forefront of her decision-making process, constantly striving to inspire her younger cousins to follow in her footsteps.
“A lot of my cousins, they grow up in these environments where you’re told, ‘You’re sub-par. You’re okay. You just need to make it to the next level, but don’t really worry about the future,’” Gilbeau said. “People like the people in my family are bred to not be successful, purposefully. It’s crazy, and I just wanted to stop that. I wanted to be a role model, and show them that if you work hard enough, and you figure out a way, meet a couple of good people, you can do it too.”
After returning from a study abroad program in Shanghai, Gilbeau showed her family members pictures of climbing the Great Wall, an accomplishment she said she never imagined could be possible. Impressed with the feat, her family members were inspired from Gilbeau’s adventure.
“When I told my family and showed them pictures, they wanted to go,” she said. “They wanted to go somewhere, just somewhere outside of where they had been all their life. It was a game-changer.”
As Gilbeau has continued to inspire her family members, she’s also made an impact on the BU community – not only directly, as an RA, but indirectly to peers and mentors as well.
KellyAnn Kirkpatrick, Gilbeau’s sorority sister and longtime friend, said though she was floored that Gilbeau was selected as this year’s commencement speaker, she wasn’t surprised.
“She’s one of the most selfless people I know,” said Kirkpatrick, a rising senior in COM. “She’s a firecracker in more ways than one, and it’s tremendous to see how far she has come as an individual. She’s a first-generation college student, and so she’s broken the status quo on so many levels…If anyone deserves this, it’s definitely her, and I can be proud to say that.”
Following graduation, Gilbeau will be working at the Posse Foundation’s Boston offices as a trainer and recruiter of new first-generation scholars. Though she’s not exactly sure where she’ll go from there, Gilbeau has learned that success doesn’t always require formulaic planning.
“I just want to keep making my family proud,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be me staying here, going abroad again, or where it’s gonna lead me, but I’m confident that I will be okay. And I’m confident that I will continue to make them proud if I just keep going on this momentum. I’m comfortable with the fact that I don’t know where I’m going.”
Adrian Baker and Felicia Gans contributed to the reporting of this story.
Note: The author of this article is also a Posse Scholar, but he did not know Tori Gilbeau until writing the story. His affiliation with the Posse Foundation did not play a role in the reporting on this article.