Philana Payton was cautiously optimistic – emphasis on the caution – when she learned that she may be the Claflin University Class of 2012’s valedictorian.
She didn’t want to tell her parents, John and Kendall, when it was more than likely she received the honor. But ultimately she did anyway.
“I told my mom not to tell anybody and 15 minutes there was a post on Facebook about it,” Payton said. Luckily the post wouldn’t be filed under the mountain of misinformation social media can sometimes produce. “I was shocked and caught off guard,” Payton said of the honor.
She will address the graduates as valedictorian during the 142nd Commencement Convocation on Saturday, May 12.
Payton said the past four years have seen her evolve. “I’m more determined to learn what I want to learn. I ‘ve developed a great institution,” she said.
She entered Claflin having been the salutatorian in high school, a leader in student government and an accomplished basketball player. Payton, a native of Stockbridge, Ga, made the Lady Panthers basketball her freshman year but later opted to focus on academics.
Apparently, the decision has worked out well for Payton. Through her studies, Payton has found true passion in advocating for women, social justice and the rights of the gay community.
She was selected to participate in Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a premier national leadership organization designed for minority students to unlock their potential. This allowed to her travel to New York and Washington, D.C. for conferences, which she noted were outstanding networking opportunities to rub elbows with Fortune 500 executives.
During her sophomore year, Payton did a research internship at Howard University through the Leadership Alliance, an undergraduate research consortium for minority students composed of 33 institutions. There, she studied the stereotypes of African-American females in cinema.
It was research she continued the following summer at the University of Illinois Champaign. Payton contrasted the differences of public perception for mixed race actresses in the 1930s and today. To do so, she studied and contrasted the film careers of the late Fredi Washington, one of the leading African-American actresses of the 1930s, and Jennifer Beals, an actress best known for her role in the Showtime series The L Word. Payton found that both played roles which emphasized the tragic mulatto stereotype, a phrase used to describe the identity crises of mixed race individuals in a society divided across racial lines. She even produced a documentary this academic year on the subject.
The tragic shooting death of Travon Martin in February was a call to arms for Payton. The case that is still gripping and dividing the nation inspired Payton to organize a rally on campus this semester to discuss the state of black youth in America and how they could be change agents for redefining African-American culture.
“I let the students know that’s bigger than one case,” she said. She also attended the NAACP’s Travon Martin rally in Florida to learn how she could affect change in her community. Her foray into activism has prompted Payton to turn down a plushy job offer at a Washington, D.C. consulting firm. She will work this summer at Camp C5, a national organization which hosts camps for students in high risk areas to prepare them for college and build their self-confidence.
Next year, she plans to attend graduate school for African-American studies with a concentration in film. Her top choices are the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Southern California and Emory University.
One of her mentors, Department of Mass Communications Chair Dr. Donna Gough, says the world is basically Payton’s oyster.
“Philana Payton is not only a bright young woman but is also truly curious about the world her. It has been a pleasure to teach Philana. I believe that she can accomplish anything that she sets her mind to accomplish. This won’t be the last recognition for her,” said Gough.
Ultimately, Payton wants to be a college professor, activist and overall just a “cool lady”. “I want to do it all. I want to have my voice heard,” she said. ###