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Black History: How a White University Changed a Poor Black Girl's Life

Last Friday evening, I received the African/African American Heritage Alumni Award at a reception at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. When I entered the university in 1992, I had very little money and felt a bit inferior amid the stacked wealth of my white peers.  It was so surreal that I was now receiving a high honor and being treated like a celebrity some 22 years later.  How did this happen?  More importantly, how can I help make this happen for more low-income black students?

As I delivered my acceptance speech before a captive of audience of 150, I thanked the Catholic nuns, professors, and staff members from Dominican who believed in me and made a profound impact in my life. I also tried to encourage the 30 African American students in the room to persevere to graduation.   

Here's an excerpt of my speech:

"And what can I say about Robbi Byrdsong-Wright, the Director of Multicultural Affairs? This woman kept all the minority students under her wing like a mother hen. I stayed in her office! I would drop by for no reason at all and just take a seat and talk. Never once did I consider if I was intruding. Her door was always open. Truth is, there weren't many African American students at Dominican, and though I had friends of other ethnicities, I felt misunderstood and lonely at times. Ms. Wright would cheer me up and tell me to blaze a trail where there isn't one. Let's give it up for ... Robbi Brysong-Wright!"


There's something to be said for a place like Dominican University. After graduating nearly 18 years ago, I still keep in touch with several of members of the faculty and staff.  Why? Because Dominican took in a 17-year-old, poor, black girl from the South Side of Chicago who had been sheltered and isolated in the culture of her community, and it graduated a 21-year-old woman, a world traveler who had already spent a summer interning at People magazine in New York City.

No doubt about it, Dominican University changed my life.

In the fall of my senior year, I studied abroad in England for four months, exploring the offerings of four European countries while there. Dominican also gave me the opportunity to see shows at the Lyric Opera House and enjoy the classical music of the Chicago Sinfonietta. I sampled all kinds of food at the multicultural student festivals and became close friends with the international students from Spain, India, Brazil and Ghana.

 I also developed my strong work ethic. My tuition and room and board weren't free, so one summer I worked three part-time jobs, including painting the Power Hall dorm room walls white!

I came to Dominican with the singular goal of getting into dental school so I could make my parents proud and get my family out of poverty. But I left Dominican understanding that the purpose of a faith-based, liberal arts education isn't for the prestige or to get rich, but to discover my God-given calling, and excel in it in a way that helps ease the suffering of others.

The kind of journalism I did at People magazine didn't ease much suffering, but it was a stepping stone in my writing career that now allows me to cry out for justice, particularly on behalf of poor African American and Hispanic children in desperate need of a quality public education.  Besides, I'm a middle school teacher, so I am well acquainted with suffering—that's why I founded Teachers Who Pray!

Receiving this African/African American Heritage Alumni Award has put a lot on my mind. Actually, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the legacy of this honor. What role I am playing within my own African American heritage?  What is the significance of me being a black alum of Dominican University?

Yes, my ancestors were slaves in this country, considered by the law as only two-thirds human. But I am just three generations from the Reconstruction Period. My maternal grandparents' family were sharecroppers in Mississippi. My mother was taught in a one room schoolhouse in the back country until she was 10. My father was raised by his grandfather who only had a third grade education and couldn't read nor write. My father ran away from his home in Mississippi when he was 17. He lived just a stone's throw away from where Emmitt Till was murdered, and knew he needed to escape the Jim Crow segregated South before suffering the same fate. He came to Chicago, and my mother's parents also moved up North in hopes of giving their children and their children's children a better future.

I did not get to this podium alone. So let's give it up for our African-American ancestors, and especially for my mother Erma Anderson who is here with me tonight!

August 1992: move in day at Dominican. My parents and I pulled up in front of Power Hall. I had a suitcase, a small trunk, a pillow and a blanket.  Then one over-packed vehicle at a time, I watched students roll up with stereo systems, TVs, and bags and bags of stuff. It was the first time I saw what wealth and privilege looked like. My heart sank. What had I gotten myself into? Had I selected the right school? Was I was good enough or smart enough to study with my white suburban counterparts. I didn't know if they would accept me with my long extension braids and sometimes grammatically incorrect speech. Plus, I was a newly committed Christian. Would my faith even survive?

It was difficult to adjust at first, but over time I began to own Dominican as my school. I must thank my mother and my late father, Robert Anderson, who passed away last year.  Without their love and moral support, and without the support of my former church, Bethel Apostolic Faith Church, I would have never made it. I persevered to make them proud, and I did. I have these graduation photos to prove it!

To all the African American students at Dominican and all those who have graduated, we have a dual mission.  Our African and African American ancestors could only dream of the freedoms we have today, so we must not squander any opportunity to set up the next generation of black Americans for success.

We must also fulfill the mission that comes with a Dominican University degree: to pursue truth and give compassionate service. A Christ-centered education is indeed a change agent.  It is one of the most empowering gifts one can hope to receive in this life, and with it we can't help but do something great.

So as I close, I want to thank my husband Kevin for always loving me and supporting my dreams. He is the leader of our family and the pride of my life, as well as our two daughters and our three-month old son.

Thank you, Dominican, for this monumental honor. I cherish it most because it has afforded me this opportunity to thank all of you. Thank you!    

The audience gave me a standing ovation.  I cried, humbled and inspired at the same time. I walked to my seat with a beautiful crystal trophy in hand. As they applauded, I was still reeling from the powerfully eloquent introduction my former English professor Mary Scott Simpson had given me. She had stated that "God has claimed" me as a writer, a notion that set my heart ablaze to keep on writing with the goal of changing the world. May I, and every classroom teacher in America, stir up our students' gifts and set their hearts ablaze! 

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