For 2023 Undergraduate Student Commencement Speaker, Community is Key

4 min read

When Yeremiya Wright arrived at UCLA in the Fall of 2019 as a first-year student, he was unaware that a global pandemic was literally right around the corner. Nor was anyone aware of what was in store.

“I went home to New Jersey in the Spring quarter of 2020 thinking I would be coming back in two weeks,” said Wright. “And then I didn’t.” 

2023 Undergraduate Student Commencement Speaker Yeremiya (Yerry) Wright

Many students who came from across the country stayed home at the start of the 2020-2021 school year, but not Wright. “I decided to return to Los Angeles,” he said. “A group of my classmates and I rented a house south of Wilshire in Westwood.”

For Yeremiya Wright (who goes by “Yerry”), the decision to come back to Los Angeles in the middle of a pandemic was about maintaining the musical community that he had discovered at UCLA. It was a supportive and welcoming community, one that he did not want to abandon. It was a community he wanted to help build. 

And build he did. The 2023 Undergraduate Student Commencement Speaker is a founding member of the Student Advisory Board, a group that directly communicated with faculty and administration and brought a student voice to matters of governance. As co-president of the board, Wright helped implement implicit bias training. He organized Zoom sessions to help people meet virtually. Once the pandemic loosened its grip on UCLA, he helped coordinate in-person social events to bring people back together. 

At Spring Sing, 2023

For Wright, building community has always been key to his identity. He grew up with a large extended family in Clifton, New Jersey. Although an only child, he was close with his grandmother, aunts and uncles, and many cousins. At one point, he shared living space with nine other family members. And whether it was church or school or home, Wright was rarely alone. 

Wright credits his large family community with developing his interest in music. As a child, Wright was a bookish kid, and he showed a talent for singing. His mother encouraged him, but he felt too shy to sing in public. He even refrained from singing to himself, for fear someone would overhear him. As with many things, it took an extra voice, someone besides his parents, to spark his passion. 

“My aunt made me sing,” said Wright. “She was a singer. She was pretty good, and she encouraged me. She had me sing in church choir. And she made me practice. She would have me lie on the floor and sing for an hour at a time. I hated it, but I did it.”

These loving demands not only helped Wright get better as a singer, they helped him discover that he loved it.

Offstage at Spring Sing

By high school, Wright was singing in five different choirs between school, church, and an afterschool vocal contracting group that took him to New York City for performances. It alerted him to the myriad possibilities of a life in music, not just as a performer but in other capacities. The world of the arts was calling.

Wright was ready to strike out after high school. Having lived his whole life within the bubble of New Jersey/New York, he applied to UCLA to try out the west coast. It was a long way from home, and a long way from his extended family. The sizes of both Los Angeles and UCLA were especially daunting. But Wright found a home immediately within the School of Music. 

“The people were really extraordinary, the students and the professors. I met a lot of fellow students immediately in ensembles,” said Wright. “You practice with them, you work with them, then pretty soon you are all getting lunch or dinner after rehearsal.”

Wright understood that it would take much more to go beyond friendships and build the breadth of connection he envisioned.  It would take hard work, both in cultivating musical groups and in service to the School of Music community. He joined the Gluck Vocal Jazz Ensemble, where he has served for the past two years. The Gluck Fellows program brings music to underserved communities around Los Angeles. It has been a particularly gratifying role for Wright, who was part of the Student Advisory Board’s initial push to open up the Gluck Fellows program to an application process in order to make participation more equitable. 

The Gluck Vocal Jazz Ensemble

Wright is a member of Awaken Acapella, a co-ed UCLA vocal group with a storied history. He has served as business manager for the organization, no small task given that the group recently opened the Wisdom of Wellness (WOW) Mental Health Summit at UCLA, headlined by Oprah Winfrey. Wright has also been a School of Music Troubadour, a student who gives tours to prospective students and assists during audition season. 

Wright’s relentless energy does not obscure his academic and professional accomplishments, which include multiple scholarships and being credited as lead vocalist on the soundtrack of the recent feature film Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. But his passion clearly lies with people, and with community. And it is there where his future points.

Yerry and his mother, Roxanne Wimberly, at the premiere of Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.

After graduating, Wright is returning to New York to perform once again. Eventually, he plans on attending graduate school in arts administration. At the core of it all is his interest in bringing artists and their audiences together. For him, “That’s what musical community is all about.”