Ron Wood, a retired Blue Cross Blue Shield vice president, remembers well how the group came together.
It was during a reunion of Wayne State’s African American graduates 30 years ago when Wood’s friend and fellow Warrior, Dr. Brent Gillum, came up with an idea: Instead of gathering intermittently to socialize, why not create a group that would allow Black graduates to meet regularly to garner support for the university and, just as importantly, future Black graduates from Wayne State?
Soon after, Gillum, who was working as an obstetrician-gynecologist at the time, began meeting with Wood and other Warriors in the Black community in hopes of making his idea a reality, spreading the word, garnering support. The idea was instantly popular. And within a few months, the Organization of Black Alumni (OBA) was born.
Three decades later, OBA endures.
Now one of the oldest alumni affinity groups at the university, the Organization of Black Alumni continues as part social hub, part community engagement vehicle and part launchpad for Black graduates seeking to grow their professional networks and diversify the workforce. Boasting more than 17,500 members, the group has provided a critical boost to many Black students as part of its efforts to give back to the local African American community.
“Many within the OBA family were first-generation students,” Wood said recently. “We collectively feel that our experiences, challenges and hurdles, when shared, may provide help to current students who may find themselves in similar situations during their own personal journey.”
The organization was sanctioned as an alumni group in Wayne State University’s Alumni Association in October 1992, making OBA the university’s second non-college, alumni constituent group.
Since its establishment, the group has worked to enhance the Black alumni experience through mentorship and outreach programs as well as through social opportunities. Thanks to the group’s work, Black alumni now have spaces to gather and an increased impact in the city and surrounding communities.
“We are building a village for students of Wayne State,” said Jasmine Coles, who is a 2021-2023 OBA student advisor and member. “By connecting with OBA, I want students and alumni to trace their current accomplishments in learning and education back to a time when education was not readily accessible to African Americans, knowing that our ancestors are proud.”
Darryl Gardner, Ph.D., senior director of Academic Student Affairs at Wayne State and one of OBA’s current leaders, said the group doesn’t just work on behalf of graduates either, but also for students whose families may lack experience navigating the demands of college.
“Each year, one third of our new FTIACS (first time in any college) come to us as first-generation students,” Gardner said. “It is incredibly important to provide students with mentors who can help them navigate college while being exposed to potential career opportunities. Exposure leads to expansion.”
Many current OBA members know well the pressures that can confront students of color stepping onto a college campus for the first time. And they can recall a time before there were affinity groups and other organizations to provide added support.
A student at Wayne State during the 1970s, Wood said he can recall being a 17-year-old incoming freshman who was utterly intimidated by the unfamiliar challenges of college.
“It was a scary experience at the time,” he said.
Gillum, Wood and others vowed to change that.
“OBA began with a group of former alumni of color seeking opportunities to stay connected with other alumni, as well as the university,” Wood explained.
These days, OBA works through the leadership of the OBA advisors and the generous support of the WSU Alumni Association. Anyone who has attained a degree from WSU can participate in OBA's programming.
OBA plans to progress its mission through the collaborative work of the university and community partners who share similar interests. This year, for instance, OBA is working to expand its social media presence to recruit more alumni and is engaged in efforts to develop marketing and promotional materials — all in hopes of ensuring Black student success at Wayne State.
“It is important to create an impactful support pipeline for students and graduates who find it challenging to become successful personally and professionally,” Coles said. “When you can show a young person who looks like them a pathway of belief and hope of a future beyond statistical norms, it creates a better society for all.”
Wood added that reaching out, giving back and uplifting future generations is also, simply, the right thing to do.
“I feel really good when I can help someone,” Wood stated. “I think a very important piece of being a human being is helping, being a servant to others.”