Mercer African American Alumni Network fosters connections, community

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A large group of men and women in formal attire post for a photo in a banquet hall.
Mercer alumni honorees pose for a picture during the 2023 "40 Under 40" Awards program, hosted by the Mercer African American Alumni Network and Minority Mentor Program. Photo courtesy Katherine Ficklin

When Sasha Brown moved into Shorter Hall as a Mercer University freshman, the first people to talk to her were her across-the-hall neighbors, Candy Smith and Velde Hardy, beginning a lifelong friendship for the 1992 graduates.

Brown would later establish what is now known as the Mercer African American Alumni Network, which works to maintain friendships like the ones she forged, foster new connections and support students through scholarships.

Over the past 15 years, the organization has grown from 50 members to 1,600 from all 50 states. In addition to being the University’s first Alumni Affinity Group, it is also the largest and most engaged.

As Brown was preparing for a mini reunion in Atlanta with some of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters in 2008, she started thinking about how she hadn’t been back to the Macon campus for Homecoming since she graduated. So, she created a page on the NING social media platform and started inviting Black Mercer alumni to join, said Brown, of Savannah. 

Before long, a 10-person committee was formed and plans were underway for an alumni Homecoming tailgate before a basketball game — football hadn’t yet returned to Mercer — in October 2008, said Katherine Ficklin, Class of 2005 and 2016. Right away, members decided to raise funds for deserving minority undergraduate students at Mercer, and small scholarships were awarded to three students after that inaugural event. 

Everyone had so much fun at the first gathering that the group started organizing more, and the NING page eventually moved over to Facebook, Brown said.

“A lot of people came back the first year, then it just evolved,” said Hardy, a Covington resident who was on the initial planning committee and chaired the organization for several years. “Some younger, fresher people came on board and picked up where we left off, and now it’s this huge organization that continues to bring excitement and give back with scholarships.”

Those “younger, fresher people” are Ficklin and 2013 Mercer graduate Dr. Ken Blair, who became co-chairs in 2018. 

A man wearing a Mercer shirt stands on a stage and speaks into a microphone, while a woman beside him applauds.
Co-chairs Ken Blair and Katherine Ficklin speak on behalf of the African American Alumni Network during Homecoming 2023 festivities on Black Field on Nov. 11. Mercer University photo

“After graduating from Mercer and attending Homecoming for the first time as an alumnus, I noticed a tent during the tailgate of other alumni who looked like me,” said Dr. Blair, of Macon. “I was very excited and went over to introduce myself, and the rest is history. I was inspired by so many successful African American alumni and their eagerness to network and get to know more about me.”

Ficklin, the youngest member of the group’s inaugural committee, said she jumped at the opportunity to use her influence to bring together alumni. A resident of Byron, she remained close to Mercer as a chapter advisor for the Iota Sigma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and regular attendee at Mercer athletics events.

Dr. Blair said one of his main goals as co-chair has been to get more participation from younger alumni. He previously worked at Mercer for the TRIO programs and Upward Bound and has used those connections to reach students and recent graduates. 

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic helped bring about even more growth for the organization, as leaders expanded their social media outreach and gained new followers during a successful virtual Homecoming in 2020, Ficklin said. The organization has created memorable experiences that alumni look forward to attending each year. 

Homecoming is an integral part of the African American Alumni Network and its mission. It’s an opportunity for alumni of all ages to fellowship and introduce themselves to students. Graduates from the 1970s through 2023 attended last year’s events, which included a meet and greet at a local restaurant on Thursday; lunch, campus tours, TRIO/Minority Mentors Program mixer, football tailgate, Greek step show, and a party on Saturday; and a worship service and brunch on Sunday, Dr. Blair said. 

“This (Homecoming) was the first year that the African American Alumni Network was recognized on the field, and I think the Mercer community is paying attention to what we’re doing,” he said. “We made sure we got word out and made sure AAA was represented, and we showed up in numbers. I’m excited that we are in a space where Mercer and the community see that we are also contributing to the success of Mercer and also making sure it’s an inclusive university.”

This was the second year the organization partnered with the Minority Mentor Program to host the “40 Under 40” awards recognizing successful young alumni as part of Homecoming festivities. 

A group of college students stand holding awards, with the two African American Alumni Network co-chairs.
Mercer African American Alumni Network co-chairs Katherine Ficklin and Dr. Ken Blair stand with scholarship winners during the 2023 Minority Student Success Conference. Photo courtesy Katherine Ficklin

Throughout the year, members participate in other networking events with the Minority Mentor Program and other Mercer TRIO programs. Every February, students are awarded scholarships during the Minority Student Success Conference. Since 2009, the organization has given out scholarships totaling almost $50,000, and members raised a record $6,000 this year, Ficklin said.

“We were all Mercer students at one point. We know how hard it can be for students of color financially to go to private school,” Ficklin said. “We know the challenges, and so that’s why it’s so important that we give back with money.”

Brown said this scholarship aspect was always part of her vision for the African American Alumni Network, and she has been pleased to see its focus on networking and mentorship. 

Four adults stand in front of the steps of a Mercer building.
Mercer African American Alumni Network members, from left, Andrea Harvey, Katherine Ficklin, Dr. Ken Blair and Tiffany Hogan are shown during the organization’s Homecoming 2023 campus tour. Photo courtesy Katherine Ficklin

“It’s been amazing to just see the number of African American students that we have basically ushered back into Mercer,” said Smith, an Atlanta-area resident and the organization’s longtime treasurer. “My college years were pivotal in helping raise me. I appreciated the close-knit environment that Mercer gave students. I just love giving back to Mercer because it’s one of those experiences in my life that has meant the most to me.”

Hardy said she has remained involved in the organization because she believes in what it stands for.

“The camaraderie, the relationships we built at Mercer, even decades later, those are strong enough to bring us back together. We want to pour back into those that are coming after us,” she said. 

Members can form mentor relationships with current Mercer students and be a source of encouragement and comfort to them, Ficklin said. Dr. Blair and Ficklin said they were sometimes the only Black students in their Mercer classes, and their shared experiences with other alumni helped to shape who they are today.

Going forward, the co-chairs would like to see the organization establish local chapters across Georgia and other states, host more networking events throughout the year, and find additional ways to connect with students and collaborate with the Mercer and Macon community. In addition, a “Life as an Alumni” cohort program is in development that would give younger alumni the opportunity to shadow older alumni and take on leadership roles, Dr. Blair said.

Although we all attended Mercer during different years, we share similarities through traditions and experiences,” Dr. Blair said. “Not only do we major in changing the world at Mercer, but we believe in reaching back and supporting those behind us.”

Interested alumni can get involved in the African American Alumni Network by joining its Facebook group or emailing mubearsaaa@gmail.com

A group of alumni gather for a photo with Mercer's baseball field in the background.
Members of the Mercer African American Alumni Network pose for a photo during 2023 Homecoming festivities. Photo courtesy Katherine Ficklin

 

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Andrea Honaker is a digital content specialist at Mercer. She writes feature stories for The Den and creates and maintains content for primary University web pages. She also plans and executes campaigns for the primary official Mercer University social media accounts.