Shelbi Harris-Mowatt stands in the front yard of her childhood home in River Terrace. The retaining wall of the front yard provides a stage. Draped in a Phi Epsilon Kappa stole and a deep, dark blue cap and gown, she waves wildly at a passing row of about 25 gleaming cars. Many sport balloons and signs as they cruise down the street sounding their horns to honor their graduation.
Cruising down the street cars sound their horns honoring her graduation sporting balloons. One of them even has a siren. Neighbors line the street, some standing in their yards filming the excitement with their phones. Others on sidewalks holding signs and waving at the passing parade. A young girl across the street sits with her family, waving a ‘Congratulations Shelbi!’ sign; down the road, neighbors toast the passing cars and wave furiously. Several lay cards or tokens on the retaining wall at the feet of Harris-Mowat, congratulating her.
“I’m so proud of you,” one says. “Haven’t I known you since you were small?”
“Sure have,” says Harris-Mowatt, smiling back at her.
Graduating During a Pandemic
Harris-Mowatt was set to graduate Cum Laude from Hampton University on May 10, 2020. More than 20 family and friends were eager to watch her walk across the stage to collect her Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology. COVID-19 changed everything. The pandemic cancelled not only convocation, but scrambled the celebration plans of loved ones.
“I was very upset when I first received the news that we would have to cancel the rest of the semester,” Harris-Mowatt said. “I just felt robbed of my senior year. The moment that I worked so hard for was taken from me and my friends.”
Her mother, Kim Harris, refused to miss the one-in-lifetime opportunity to celebrate her daughter’s achievements.
“My heart broke for all graduates, so I needed to do something for her. I saw a few celebrations on the news and thought, what a great idea!” Harris got to work planning a parade of cars to allow friends and family to safely congratulate her daughter. She organized balloons, signs and a lot of noise. The celebration was a brilliant success.
Harris-Mowatt is not usually a fan of the spotlight. However, she decided to have fun with her family and friends. As she watched the waves of congratulations and well-wishers pass before her, it was clear she was visibly moved. “It’s more than I expected,” she said. “It’s great, it’s wonderful. It brought tears to my eyes.”
River Terrace Born and Raised
Harris-Mowatt grew up in the River Terrace neighborhood, but attended private schools. Still, she cultivated many friendships with neighborhood kids. An athlete, she played soccer, studied taekwondo. Honing her basketball skills on the neighborhood courts, she started for St. John’s and Bishop McNamara varsity teams. She was also active Girl Scout Troop #5481.
“Growing up in River Terrace was fun,” Harris-Mowatt said. “I didn’t attend the neighborhood school, but I still had my neighborhood friend, Nicholos Cooper. He most definitely taught me street sense and an understanding of what group of people I wanted to hang around.”
Harris-Mowatt was an altar girl at St Philips Episcopal Church. 2001 14th St SE. It was there that East of the River first met her. At the age of four, her photograph at church graced the cover of the July 2003 issue.
The pandemic has put Harris-Mowatt’s future plans on hold. She has been interviewing for jobs and is applying for graduate school.
With her official convocation rescheduled for Sept. 27, her mother is praying the family will have the chance to watch Shelbi walk across the stage. Her pride is palpable. “I feel very proud of her accomplishments, both academically and personally,” she said. “I never doubted her abilities and I feel confident she will continue to be a bright star in our society.”
Harris-Mowatt is looking forward to her official graduation. But, she also sees the significance of being part of the unique graduating class of 2020. “I realize that this year is monumental in terms of how it contributes to history,” she said. “I’m proud to be a part of this now-historical class.”