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OAAA honors first black grad.

The first black student to receive an undergraduate degree from the University addressed a group of students and faculty yesterday afternoon during a ceremony honoring student achievement.

The event, Harambee II, has been held every winter for the past 16 years in recognition of first-year black students who achieve a first-semester GPA of 3.0 or higher.

Sylvia Terry, associate dean of the Office of African-American Affairs, called keynote speaker Dr. Robert A. Bland, who graduated from the University with a degree in electrical engineering in 1959, a "pioneer."

"Had he not stayed [to complete his degree], I shudder to think of what our population of students would have been here," Terry said.

Since leaving the University, Bland has received a master's degree in psychology and a doctorate in education, Terry said.

During his address, Bland told the audience about his experience at the University in the mid-1950s and about the lessons he learned.

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision affected Bland's decision to apply to the University, he said.

"There was a determination on the part of African Americans that they were going to stand up and move forward in light of this decision," he said. "That certainly was part of the reason why I applied to the University of Virginia."

Bland was one of three black students to enroll in the Engineering School in 1955. Bland said the three sought to make the best of their situation by taking advantage of every possible opportunity on Grounds. While the three students found they could participate in nearly every form of campus activity -- other than fraternity life -- Bland noted that "the minute we stepped off campus, we were right back into the segregated South."

In addition to recalling the social atmosphere of the University community, Bland also discussed his educational pursuits at the University.

"We struggled, quite frankly," he said, adding that he was "ill-prepared by the system of separate but equal education."

Bland said while he struggled during his first two years, and his two fellow black classmates left the University, he decided that he would succeed.

"I made the decision that failure was not going to be an option for me," he said. "I had an obligation to myself ... I had an obligation to my family ... and I had an obligation also to my people, who had supported me and had been the reason why I was here in the first place."

Bland said his experiences taught him several lessons, which he shared with the audience.

"One of the first things that I learned was that I am in control of my own destiny," he said, adding that he also learned about the importance of hard work and the value of "working properly," by finding the proper means to achieve a goal.

Bland told the students in attendance that his lessons can apply to their lives as well.

"In summary, you can do it," he said. "You can do it. ... But whatever you do, never ever, ever give up."