African-American Alumni Celebrate 25 Years of Affinity
It was 1989. Tony Ross ’91, a Franklin & Marshall College sophomore at the time, was at a crossroads.
While in many ways a successful student, he felt adrift and thought about transferring.
“I was feeling my way,” Ross recalls. “At times, there were academic and social issues. There was not a lot of visible African-American leadership on campus, and I—along with many other students—felt isolated on many occasions.”
Ross was president of the Black Student Union—advocating for stronger integration of intellectual, cultural, and social activities for black students, as well as seeking to support members to achieve their educational goals. African-Americans comprised just 3.5 percent of the student body, about half the percentage of African-American students on campus today.
Enter Art Taylor ’80, a member of the Franklin & Marshall College Alumni Association who had identified similar needs to support and inspire African-American students on campus and to build connections with alumni. Taylor, an attorney and College trustee, asked Ross to become a charter member of an affinity group that not only would recognize the College’s accomplished African-American graduates, but also would provide African-American students with the best experience possible during their time on campus and beyond.
The hope was that students would benefit from the experiences of and guidance from a community that began with F&M’s first African-American graduate, Sumner Bohee Jr., M.D., ’50 and has continued with such prominent national and community leaders as retired Lancaster teacher Sydney Bridgett ’51; former U.S. Rep. and United Negro College Fund President William H. Gray ’63; the prominent Rev. Louis A. Butcher ’65 of Lancaster; and 500 others. Thus was the birth of what would come to be known as the African-American Alumni Council (AAAC), a model of support that today extends to the entire campus and is fully engaged in the College’s mission to offer a holistic liberal arts education to students of all backgrounds.
“The Council is one of the major reasons that I remained at F&M,” says Ross, who now is president of the United Way of Pennsylvania, based in Harrisburg. He has been chair of AAAC since 1993. “It made me feel connected to the College and gave me a certain comfort level. It was very important to hear the success stories of these alumni and to know there would be opportunities after F&M.”
Twenty-five years later, the African-American Alumni Council is one of the most active affinity groups at Franklin & Marshall. Membership has grown from about 45 graduates in 1988 to more than 250 today, Ross says. The organization is involved in key College initiatives to attract and retain high-achieving students of all backgrounds who are likely to succeed at a selective liberal arts college such as F&M. It also serves as a proud resource for students—including first-generation students who do not have a model for navigating college life—and for alumni as they progress in their careers.
“We are different things to different folks at different times in their lives,” Ross says. “We emphasize that our members are citizens of F&M for a lifetime, not just during their four years as undergraduates.”
Building Community–For a Lifetime
The AAAC is committed to ensuring that bonds with both F&M and the Council are formed when its members are still students.
RaeVaughn Williams ’15 is a living example of this. In August of 2011, 13 days before his scheduled arrival at the College from his home in New York, Williams was in a near-fatal car accident. He was on his way to get ice cream and cake to celebrate his sister’s christening when he was hit by a car, an event he remembers in “bits and pieces.” He was hospitalized for a month, a period during which he had a craniotomy to relieve the swelling in his brain, and was in a medically induced coma.
Williams, who still struggles at times to remember precise dates and words, has undergone rigorous therapy to regain his memory, movement and speech. He credits the AAAC and the Franklin & Marshall community with supporting him in his recovery.
“When I woke up, the first thing I said to my mom was, ‘I have to go to school,’” Williams says with a broad smile during a recent conversation at the Zest Bistro café on campus. President Daniel R. Porterfield visited him at the hospital, and his classmates signed a card that was half as tall as Williams.
“After the accident, the support I got from F&M and the Council expedited my recovery process,” he says. “My original prognosis was really bleak. When I got to the hospital, they told my mother there was a slim chance of my living. A bunch of classmates became my friends on Facebook after the accident saying, ‘I look forward to meeting you when you get here.’ Some of my closest friends now were the ones who messaged me when I was in the hospital.”
Once he arrived on campus, Williams and Ross had lunch, and the two discussed the best way for Williams to acclimate to F&M. Williams previously met Shadoe Tarver ’10, a fellow Posse Foundation Scholar, and Ross introduced him to Joaquim Hamilton ’06 of IMPACT, an F&M student group that supports students of diverse backgrounds. As Posse Scholars, Williams and Tarver both came to the College as part of a group of high-achieving students from the same urban area who were a good match for the College’s supportive, academically rigorous environment. The Posse Foundation is based on the premise that having a “posse,” or support network, in college is the key to success. The AAAC provided yet another network for Williams.
“Having the alumni network made the transition easier for me,” Williams says, noting that he was concerned about making the transition from his hometown, which was a diverse community, to a less-diverse community. “I wondered how it would be to come to F&M and be in a classroom with people of all different walks of life. Talking to Tony and Shadoe and others gave me an idea of what to expect when I came to F&M.”
Williams now taps the network for advice about choosing classes and the possibility of becoming a psychology major. “We talk about how prestigious F&M is and how it is known for being rigorous,” he says. “It gives me hope that I can go to the law school of my choice.”
Rediscovering F&M After a Family Legacy
Richard W. “Rich” Rogers Jr. ’90 took a different path to the AAAC. He came from a long line of F&M alumni. His father, attorney Richard W. Rogers Sr. ’57, chose the College because of its academic rigor, and his uncles, Dr. Lemuel A. Rogers Jr. ’59, attorney Robert J. Rogers ’63 and the Hon. Peter F. Rogers ’69, also chose F&M. Still, Rich Rogers did not find his place at the College right away.
“I was not sure of the path I wanted to take after high school, but academic expectations were a given in my family,” Rogers says. “I happened to interview at F&M after riding along with a friend who was going for an interview. I ended up applying Early Decision.”
Rogers, now principal owner of Geese Peace Inc. in Blue Bell, Pa., and president of the Norristown Arts Council, came back to F&M for his five-year and 20-year reunions, but it was not until he attended an alumni event in Philadelphia to welcome President Daniel R. Porterfield in 2011 that he became re-engaged with the College and joined the Philadelphia Regional Chapter of the Alumni Association.
“I liked the things I was reading about Dr. Porterfield. He talked about giving support not only to those who graduated long ago, but also to those who were one and two years out,” Rogers says. “He knew there were pockets of alumni who were not engaged with the College.”
Rogers could relate. “For a long period, I had bitter feelings toward the College,” he says, “but then I figured out I was only upset with myself because I had not taken advantage of [the opportunities at] F&M. Despite not having taken advantage of the opportunities, without the College, I never would have followed the same trajectory I have thus far in life.”
The mission of improving the experiences of students-turned-alumni such as Rogers—and of providing the foundation for a lifelong relationship with F&M—grows out of the very origins of the AAAC.
Taylor, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance in Arlington, Va., pondered the question of how to provide African-American students with the best possible undergraduate experience long before he came up with the idea for an affinity group. He spoke to African-American alumni from several different colleges but could not find one like F&M that had a formal affinity group that focused on the needs of African-American students and alumni.
“I thought, ‘What if we had an alumni group whose mission was to make the (undergraduate) experience a good one? We could offer advice, support and Council while students were on campus,” Taylor recalls.
Taylor, who describes his undergraduate experience as “a very good four-year stretch at F&M,” with challenges, close friends, stimulating classes and fun activities, recognized that many of his peers felt differently. “There were quite a few in my class who left after the first year,” Taylor says. “They felt like F&M was a place to get a good education and learn as much as you could, but it wasn’t necessarily the best experience. I wanted my experience to be more the norm.”
Taylor came to the realization that African-American students, in particular, needed the affirmation and support of others like themselves—affirmation he himself gleaned from involvement in campus clubs and activities, and through the overall support he received from the entire community, starting with fellow students (many African-American) and professors, all the way up to the president of the College. Taylor recalled that during the Commencement ceremony in 1980, for example, as he crossed the stage to collect his diploma, then-president Keith Spalding made an impromptu comment that resonated with Taylor: “Stay involved,” Spalding said.
Taylor took heed, signing up to be a volunteer recruiter for F&M’s Office of Admission. But those experiences once more highlighted the need for a more formal network for African-American students.
“From time to time, I would see African-American high school students at college fairs and encourage them to come to F&M,” Taylor says. “It struck me that I was encouraging kids to come to Franklin & Marshall, but we hadn’t done anything to deal with this problem that so many African-American students didn’t feel comfortable there.”
Taylor floated the Council plan with other alumni during the College’s Black Cultural Arts Weekend in 1987. These included Paula Dow, Esq., ’77, Christine A. Harper ’80, Brenda Gibson ’85, Helen Cannaday Saulny ’82 and the second African-American to graduate from F&M, Bridgett, among others. The group broached the idea with the alumni programs office, which provided Taylor with a list of 200 African-American alumni. He started with the first African-American graduate, Bohee, and called every number on the list. About 50 alumni accepted the invitation to return to campus for the 1988 Black Cultural Arts Weekend and participated in workshops on how to become a leader in the corporate world and how to excel in academics. Dr. Henry Wiggins Jr. ’55 funded a reception for students who joined what was then called the Black Alumni Council. The group set bylaws and scheduled meetings and committees for activities, publicity and other priorities. In 1990, the Council took its current name.
“Of all the things that I’ve done in my life, this is one that I’ve been most proud of,” Taylor says, noting that the Council fits in with the broader mission of Franklin & Marshall today—to provide a holistic liberal arts education to the full mosaic of talented students.
“F&M is at a point in time when, like a lot of other colleges and universities, it must look beyond the places from which it traditionally recruits,” Taylor says. “The College has always been a great place to learn, but to lead in the future it must attract the best students, many of whom would not have thought an F&M education was attainable. I am happy that when they arrive they will find active alumni who will want to be part of their success.”
Today, the Council comes together for two cornerstone events: The Bridgett Medal Ceremony at Homecoming and a Commencement breakfast, during which graduates of color receive a symbolic Kente cloth—a scarf-like stole with a colorful African-inspired print that graduates wear over their robes to mark their passage to alumni status.
They also take time to honor the past while they celebrate accomplishments of the present. In 2011, the group created the Bridgett Awards to recognize African-American alumni of distinction and to honor the award’s namesake, Sydney Bridgett, who is not only an accomplished alumnus, but was integral to the formation of the Council. Bridgett, a retired teacher and member of the U.S. Foreign Service who now lives in Willow Street, Pa., was the first secretary of the AAAC. He said he is honored to have the award named after him—especially by a group that celebrates the kind of support he received as an undergraduate.
“When I started, I was not qualified to attend, but a professor took a specific interest in me and saw that I got in,” Bridgett recalls. “I was one of the first three black graduates, and I am very proud of that and happy with my experience at F&M.”
Indicative of the connections between students and alumni, the Black Student Union also created a Bridgett Award, which is presented to students who exemplify his leadership in character, during BSU’s Black Carpet Formal. Chyann Starks ’13 received BSU’s Bridgett medal this year for creating the College’s first Civil Rights Week, which featured a keynote address by celebrated activist, scholar and theologian Cornel West.
Starks said she was honored to be “aligned with (Bridgett) and all of his contributions to F&M” and to have support from the Council.
“The AAAC is a remarkable organization because it celebrates the achievements of F&M’s African-American alumni and supports the efforts of current African-American students,” she said. “The Council embodies the importance of community and models the ways that I can continue to contribute to F&M as a soon-to-be alumna.”
Day-to-day, the Council continues to be a unifying force for current students, recent graduates and alumni—including international students and alumni from Africa and the Caribbean. Alumni and students stay connected through events at Homecoming and Commencement, as well as through a lively Facebook page, where members share news about campus happenings, accomplishments and milestones, and exchange advice about classes, potential majors and career opportunities.
Attorneys in the group, including Leroy Pernell ’71, offer advice to students interested in studying law. And Hamilton and Tarver approached Ross and Taylor for guidance about creating a nonprofit that would expand on the student group IMPACT nationally.
In 2011, Tigist Hailu ’11 reached out to the Council for help with a senior photography project celebrating the 60th anniversary of African-American students on campus. Ross helped Hailu identify six prominent alumni, one from each decade, and she created a special exhibition in which she projected images and quotes on campus buildings that had special meaning to the subjects. Since then, she has stayed involved in the AAAC.
“I keep in touch with Tony and other alums through the AAAC Facebook page,” says Hailu, who is the coordinator for diversity in research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Memory Center in Philadelphia. “I think it’s important, especially for the African-American community, to have that friendship and bond. I had that support on campus, and it’s continued for me as an alumna.”
The next chapter for the AAAC is to grow as an organization that encourages alumni both to celebrate the relationships and accomplishments of the past, and also to engage in new initiatives shaping the College’s future.
It’s the energy surrounding this work that excites alumni such as Rogers. Soon after the alumni event with President Porterfield in Philadelphia, Ross invited Rogers to deliver the welcome address at the AAAC’s Commencement breakfast. “The message I delivered was an honest one about being disengaged and, after some time and realization, being reengaged. I explained that F&M was a place that, after all that time, still welcomed me with open arms,” Rogers says.
Rogers explained how reconnecting with the College has made him aware of how the institution has grown and responded to a changing world, and how F&M now is graduating more African-American students than ever, a commitment he is proud to stand behind.
“Even having had an unorthodox experience in college, I realized that coming through F&M makes quite a statement, whether you are applying for jobs or starting your own endeavors,” Rogers says. “Any experience there is a powerful and valuable tool. I realize how blessed and fortunate I am to have come from a legacy of graduates. That hit me when I went to the AAAC breakfast and heard from families who talked about their experiences as part of this family at F&M and the importance of the achievements of their graduating seniors.”
As the son and nephew of those who blazed a trail to F&M, Rogers says he understands more than ever how important it is for students and young alumni to be able to see the path ahead.
“I had four members of my family who went to F&M, but there are many people out there who didn’t have that,” Rogers says. “Those who have been through the experience are able to reach back and say, ‘Let me show you how this can help you in your life.’ In the other direction, I can look back at those who graduated before me. There is a real value to that and learning about the pioneers, the graduates like Sydney Bridgett, Henry Wiggins Jr., my father and his brothers and a handful of others. Looking at my own experience, I know as time goes on, I will only be more engaged with the College.”
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