A new recognition program has been launched to celebrate the accomplishments of young Mercer University alumni and inspire current students to continue their paths to success.
Mercer’s Minority Mentor Program and African American Alumni Network announced the inaugural class of “40 Under 40” honorees during their annual Homecoming Alumni Mixer in November.
The Minority Mentor Program was created at Mercer in the 1990s under the direction of Samuel Hart. The associate dean of students at the time, he recognized a need for additional support and services for minority students, said Nicole Small, assistant director of TRIO Student Support Services and program adviser for the Office of Minority Affairs.
Each year, 100-120 new Mercer students participate in the program. They move onto campus early for a weeklong orientation, take a one-credit course that focuses on study skills and learning, are paired with upperclassmen who mentor them throughout their first year, and have access to advising services with staff. After their introductory year, they have the opportunity to serve as mentors and receive continued access to programming and advising.
Small said she’s witnessed amazing growth by students in the program. Some have come out of their shell and pursued leadership opportunities. Others have gained an understanding of who they are as people or what it means to pursue a certain career. They learn to advocate for themselves and make their own decisions.
The Minority Mentor Program also fosters connections. Students have the chance to build relationships with Mercer graduates through annual events like the Alumni Mixer, Minority Student Success Conference and speaker series. Those connections have led to internships and job opportunities for students.
“The biggest thing is the networking opportunity. A lot of our alumni are working in fields that minority students may not know that they have access to. (These events) provide an opportunity for students to ask questions,” Small said. “We make sure they are aware there are options and opportunities for them, but more than that, that there are people that are representative of their life and what they’ve experienced.”
Founded in 2008, the African American Alumni Network is Mercer’s longest-standing alumni affinity group and a steadfast supporter of the Minority Mentor Program. The group has grown to a network of more than 1,500 members, 300 of whom returned for Homecoming this year, said Ken Blair, co-chair of the network since 2018.
“As a first-generation college graduate, I know firsthand that there are certain resources and additional support that students need. The African American alumni can relate,” said Blair, a 2013 Mercer graduate and former Upward Bound academic coordinator and Minority Mentor Program adviser. “As alumni, some of us encountered similar circumstances. It’s important for our minority students especially to know that they have individuals who support them and who can relate. Representation is very essential. It’s a way that we can mentor, empower, stay engaged and provide students with additional resources to be successful.”
The ’40 Under 40′ program is another way to inspire current students while also encouraging and increasing alumni engagement with the University, Small said. The first cohort — selected through a nomination process — includes alumni from a variety of graduation years, backgrounds and fields of study. They were recognized for contributions related to community service, awards, presentations, projects, promotions and more. The award recognizes their accomplishments on a smaller scale and provides a great addition for their resumes.
These alumni are a “living legacy” for current Minority Mentor Program students. The hope is that these honorees will come back to Mercer to share their stories and experiences with students, said Small, a 2009 Mercer graduate and one of this year’s honorees.
“We’ve had a lot of great things come out of minority alumni at Mercer. We want to highlight those persons,” Small said. “The hope is that we can get some of our younger alumni to connect.”
These honorees are also the future of the African American Alumni Network, and they are doing amazing work, both locally and across the globe, Blair said.
“The ultimate goal is that ‘each one, teach one,’” said Blair, who is now director of strategic initiatives in the Office of the President at Wesleyan College and among the first class of “40 Under 40” honorees. “Hopefully they can pour back into the next set of Minority Mentor students.”
Chrystal York, a 2007 Mercer graduate, is among this year’s honorees. As an industrial management major, she landed internships at companies like Rheem, Milliken and ARINC that laid the foundation for her future career. After graduation, she worked at Acuity Brands, Eaton Cooper, Target’s headquarters in Minnesota and Trojan Battery Co. Today, she is a total productive maintenance operational excellence manager for Ecolab, where she leads initiatives to improve safety, quality, delivery, cost, culture and high-performing teams.
In addition, she founded The Bridge Solution in 2019. This nonprofit focuses on providing innovative solutions to three issues that vulnerable populations face: access to affordable housing, nutritionally dense foods and workforce training. With the support of several partners, she has secured land in Hampton to create an aquaponics system to farm fish and grow leafy greens and start a community fishing program. Her nonprofit also plans to launch an AG-STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) apprenticeship program.
“For the awardees for the ’40 Under 40,’ recognition goes a long way. Being a startup nonprofit working to change the world and working a full-time job, it was amazing to be honored,” she said. “It has taken so much time to get here. I’m just excited about the possibilities that can be created.”
York has been involved in Mercer’s African American Alumni Network for several years. At this year’s Alumni Mixer, she was able to connect some freshmen with her sorority sisters for future opportunities.
“It gives them access to individuals in the same shoes, in the same chairs that they’re currently sitting in. It gives them exposure to what they can actually do,” York said. “It was a great way to be a connector and to really listen to what their voices are. That’s how we can pour into the next generation. I feel like that’s my job. That’s my role now.
“Without Mercer, I would not have had that level of tenacity to go after something so big and dream big.”
2022 ’40 Under 40′ Honorees
- Alize Mitchell
- Alveta Watkins
- Amber Jones-King
- Ansley Booker
- Ashley Batten
- Ashley English
- Athea Vanzant Harris
- Caleb Brown
- Chrystal York
- Daa’iyah Cooper
- D’Amonta Johnson
- DeShun Gilchrist
- Donald Chambliss
- Ebonye Smith
- Erin Watson
- Erin Keller
- Faith Harris
- Hubert (Dillen) Thomas
- Jacquez Harris
- Jasmine Tapper
- Javon Denson-Blackmon
- Jayla Moody
- Jordan Marshall
- Juawn Jackson
- Kaylen Long
- Ken Blair
- Kimberly Flanders (Billingsley)
- LaTonya Cratic
- Macire Aribot
- Michaela Jones
- Nassim Ashford
- Nicole Woolfork-Hull
- Nicole Small
- Nina Rasheed
- Rani Waymon
- Rosalyn Brown
- Shadaisa Wilcox
- Sheridan King
- Stephany Leal
- Tessola Duncan