Tufts Alumni

Pan-African Alliance

Making a Reunion Count

Alumni posing in front of Capen House for a pre-barbecue photo are (top, l-r) Bill Ewing, A84, Troy Cooper, A84, Angela Faison Strobe, J85, (center, l-r) Mary Lee Wallace, J86, Michelle Sajous, J84, Gabe Gomez, A74 (bottom, l-r) Gerald Gill, professor of history, Sandra Leek, J76, Pamela Brewster Owens, J84, and Wayne Owens, A81.

Troy Cooper, A84, and Wayne Owens, A81, are taking a moment to relax in Capen House before the start of the Black Alumni Millennium Reunion. The event, from October 20 to 22, has brought some 150 graduates back to Tufts on Homecoming Weekend, the first such gathering for the Pan-African Alliance since the 25th reunion of the African American Society in 1994. Alumni have come from as far as Missouri, Louisiana and California, and represent almost 50 years of graduating classes.

Cooper and Owens are quick to credit the capable assistance of their classmates, particularly Mary Lee Wallace, J86, who helped pull together innumerable details-including panel discussions, a barbecue and an awards dinner-in just two short months. Support from history professor Gerald Gill and Lisa Coleman, director of the African-American Center, also helped with the logistics of the Medford/Somerville campus.

As they talk about Tufts in the pre-Reunion quiet of the Capen House living room, it's easy to see how another factor-their own personal commitment to Tufts-set the stage for a successful event. Cooper, a national collections manager for Marriott International in Washington, D.C., was an "extremely shy" undergraduate with exceptional talent on the basketball court.

Division I schools tried to recruit the six-foot-seven teenager who'd honed his skills on the courts of the Boston housing projects, but he opted for the smaller academic community of Tufts. Cooper soon made a name in Jumbo athletics, earning the distinction of leading all-time scorer and breaking 30-year records. Still, he found it hard to adjust to academic life among his classmates, or "brainiacs," as he calls them, and at one point seriously doubted that he'd graduate. Then he was introduced to alumni at the annual Hoop Homecoming and had a chance to see what a graduate could do.

"All these alumni were coming back and they seemed like such normal people to me!" he recalls. "You'd find them around campus making time to talk to people. I found strength in the alumni coming back; it helped me get through a difficult time and I made a pledge to myself that-not if I got through Tufts, but when-I was going to come back, too."

He then runs down a list of names and watches closely as they are written down: Mike Tapscott, Michael Rubin, Oscar Burgos, Mark Craigell, Mudarris Jihad (Darrel Brown), Leroy Charles, Reginald Graham, Timothy Scaggs and Ed Tapscott. "Those guys pulled me through," he says. " I told them how important they were to me for the first time in 1994, and the rest I told in 1999, and it brought tears to their eyes. You never know what's going through someone's head when they see an alum, and I used these guys to help me. My thought was that if it helped me to see these successful alumni talking about their lives and careers after Tufts, then I might be able to do the same for someone else someday. It took me two years after graduation to keep my word, but I did it and I'm still doing it."

Owens, a stockbroker with Prudential in Boca Raton, Florida, didn't hesitate to sign on when Troy turned to him for help. His Tufts experience was also pivotal. President of the African American Society and a popular Tufts DJ, he was best known for his radio show on WMFO, "RIBS," or "Rhythms in Black Satin."

"Tufts taught me the rules of life," he says. "In the inner city where I grew up, you know only one set of rules. But when you get into another world, you learn that the rules change. Life has taught me just as much as Tufts. I now say there is no situation that I cannot thrive in. The key to a successful person is that kind of flexibility."

He also met his wife at Tufts, Pamela Brewster Owens, J84, and stayed in the area while she finished up. "So I was close to Tufts for almost ten years," he says. "That's a long time, and it was an important part of my life." It took work, he granted, for some people to consider coming back. "Sometimes it meant a lot of cajoling and convincing. But I always said: 'While you might have had a problem with the administration while you were here, you come back for the people, for the four to five years you were here that were important.'"

Mary Lee Wallace, J86, director of planning and analysis at George Washington University, shared similar feelings and joined the cause. "When I see something going on and a need to be met, I step up," she says. "I helped draft a letter to the president to communicate for the Black Alumni Association what Tufts means to us, and we invited him to participate. After that, we worked over the Internet. It is remembering that 'we go to this together.' It could not have been done without the Internet," she adds. "It's a great example of the power of technology to pull people together."

For Owens, gatherings like reunions help "understand your own mortality and think about the good times you had at Tufts-not just the education, but how somebody gave something of themselves, so we could come here. The message of this event is: It's time for us to do something now, not only financially. It is also time for us to ask the administration, What are you doing for the black students who come to Tufts? We can be a very effective presence."

Homecoming got under way with a reception on Friday evening at the Cohen Auditorium Art Gallery that also included a slide show and discussion given by Professor Jo Anna Isaak of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and curator of the exhibit "Looking Forward, Looking Black." On Saturday, activities started off with panel presentations. The first, "The Current Status of African-American Faculty, Students, and Staff and Curricula Issues,"gave President John DiBiaggio, Provost Sol Gittleman, Vice President Mel Bernstein, Dean of Students Bruce Reitman, and Director of Financial Aid William Eastwood an opportunity to express their ideas about recruiting more black undergraduates and graduates. The entering Class of 2004 is now eight percent African-American, and the total undergraduate population is 5.6 percent African-American.

On the theme "There is life after Tufts, make it what you want it to be," alumni participated in two other panels: "Economic Entrepreneurship and Community Empowerment" and "Graduate and Professional School Education or Employment in the Private and Non-Profit Sectors."

Friends and classmates then gathered on Capen House Lawn for a barbecue and met up again that evening at the Holiday Inn in Somerville for a dinner dance and awards ceremony. The ceremony paid tribute to Professor Gill by making him an honorary Tufts alumnus, acknowledging his vast service to black alumni, including researching and writing Tufts' first historic record of African-American at Tufts.

Alumni who received Kente cloth in recognition for their help with Homecoming planning and for service to the Tufts African-American community were Cooper and Owens, Judge Inez Smith-Reid, J59, Trustee Emeritus Gabriel Gomez, A74 (former assistant director of the Afro-American Center), Sandra Leek, J76, Michelle Sajous, J84, and Mary Lee Wallace. For those who attended, the Reunion stands as an important achievement.

"It was an unbelievable event," says Doug Harris, A82. "It was an opportunity to bring the past together with the present and future, in hopes of supporting one another and making Tufts as diverse and great an institution as it can be." Cooper anticipates that the Pan-African Association will continue to grow in numbers and enthusiasm. As testimony, he cites the popularity of a web site started in January that now has nearly 1,000 people who access the site daily-graduates from as far away as Russia, Africa, Egypt and South America. (Access to the site can be gained through contacting one of the graduates listed at the end of this story.)

In the end, adds Owens, that vital link, whether on the web or at reunions such as Homecoming, will build its effectiveness on shared values. "You have to know that in the dynamics of the black family, a lot of what we learn is through our parents and our grandparents; we learn through the oral tradition. I think this is what we have done this weekend. It brings us together as elders for younger people to whom we can bring some wisdom of experience."

For web information and access contact: Wayne Owens at 561-488-5501 or wayne_l_owens@prusec.com; Troy Cooper at 800-638-8108 ext. 88826 or tufts4@hotmail.com; or Doug Harris at dharris@worldvuew.com. Laura Ferguson







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