Six alumni and a current student — representing more than 50 years in the history of Clark University — gathered both in person and on Zoom on Feb. 24 to reflect on their wide array of experiences and challenges as Black individuals in the academic and professional realms.
Panel of the Decades was co-sponsored by the Black Student Union (BSU), Office of Identity, Student Engagement, and Access (ISEA), and the Office of Alumni and Friends Engagement to help celebrate Black Alumni Homecoming Weekend and Black History Month. The BSU continued the weekend celebrations with the BlackExcellence Ball, co-hosted with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) and Caribbean African Student Association, and the Soul Food Brunch in collaboration with ODI and ISEA.
Over the course of a two-hour conversation, moderated by Temera De Groot ’25 and William Stafford ’26 in Jonas Clark Hall, the panelists answered a series of questions from students that elicited recollections of their own student days at Clark, observations about how they’ve navigated their lives and careers, and recommendations to current students about empowering themselves to move with confidence in the world beyond Clark.
Adjoa Aiyetoro ’67, a retired racial justice lawyer, and Donna Sams ’76, a retired executive, both came to Clark from predominantly Black communities, and each recalled having to work through early feelings of social and cultural isolation as one of few Black students on campus. “I felt no distancing from the white students; I was included in everything,” Aiyetoro said. “My isolation was because I no longer had my counterparts.”
Arrival on campus was a less stressful experience for Clark trustee Kevin Cherry ’81, who grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Boston and attended a largely white high school before being recruited to play basketball at Clark. “I was prepared for the feeling of being a minority,” he said.
Hadley Camilus ’05 remembered being “affirmed and empowered” by a newly hired assistant dean of students who encouraged him to become more involved through initiatives like the Black Arts Explosion and the Millennium Leadership Conference. “When I had an idea, I was able to run with it,” he said.
The 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri “launched a shift in the BSU and in the atmosphere at Clark to be more geared toward social justice issues,” noted Courtney Thomas ’17, M.A. ’18. “We knew we had to stand united with the people in Ferguson — we couldn’t be silent.”
Glory Phipps ’23 described her experience at Clark as a “rollercoaster” in which she’s built strong bonds with fellow Black students while also learning “to navigate the social spheres that weren’t Black.” Phipps, who is planning a law career, said she has persevered through microaggressions during her student years, asked hard questions, and engaged in debates as she’s come to realize the importance of contributing her voice to the Clark narrative, including through her position as vice president of Student Council. “If I have an idea, I can make it happen,” she said. “If there’s something that needs to be solved, I can be that person.”
A question about whether they’d ever experienced “imposter syndrome” had the panelists considering their academic and professional paths, and the strategies they adopted to succeed. Chima Egbuzie ’19, who was born and raised in Nigeria before immigrating to the Bronx, said he is the youngest person in the marketing department at HBO Max, where he has gained the confidence to contribute perspectives that are both unique and valuable when business decisions are being made. “I’m proud to be in those rooms, pitching ideas for marketing,” he said. “It takes a belief in yourself to point out things that other people may not see.”
A corporate environment may be designed in a way that challenges your sense of belonging, said Sams, who worked in a corporate setting for 25 years. “I changed my hair so as not to look too black. I changed the way I dressed so as not to look too black,” she recalled. “Then it dawned on me that I’m as smart as anyone else — the environment had been designed in a way to leave me feeling like an imposter.” The key, she said, was recognizing that she brought skills, talents, and knowledge to the table that others did not. “Don’t make it about us; it’s not about us,” Sams said. “We have so much to bring to that environment that they know nothing about.”
It’s important for people from marginalized groups to “support each other, affirm each other, and take care of each other,” in the workplace, said Camilus, who is associate dean of multicultural affairs at Phillips Exeter Academy. “That goes a long way.”
Cherry said that getting past your self-doubt means acknowledging “that I earned my seat and I’m going to keep it. If folks say, ‘You don’t belong here,’ then show them you do belong here.”
Thomas, who grew up in a predominantly white Long Island suburb, said she didn’t doubt her competence, but that she had to adjust to her post-Clark life in Memphis, where she is a senior policy analyst at the Hope Policy Institute. “I often felt that I didn’t belong because I’m not from the South,” she said. “But Memphis is my home now. You’ll realize that your experiences are valuable and important, and you should speak out, but also learn when to be quiet and let others who are from here speak up.”
Phipps questioned her capabilities when she first arrived at Clark and considered transferring to a city college in New York. Joining clubs, like the BSU, gave her a much-needed sense of comfort. “Surrounding myself with students with the same interests helped me find my place at Clark,” she said.
Asked about some of their proudest career moments, the alumni participants offered a range of accomplishments. Sams pointed to the people whom she mentored as she ascended the corporate ladder, “who are doing really big things now.” Cherry cited his career as a CFO for nonprofits, schools, and health centers, his 10 years as a member of the Clark Board of Trustees, and his recent participation in establishing “a $45 million, 50,000-square-foot charter school for 1,100 black and brown kids in the city of Boston.”
For Camilus, years of coaching basketball at the high school and community college levels helped him impart important life lessons. A podcast he started several years ago has helped him better understand human development and “what aspects of people’s identity are salient.”
Working with people in the community has allowed her to “amplify the voices of people on the ground,” Thomas said.
What advice would the alumni give to current students as they head into their careers?
Several of the participants stressed the need to network and build relationships, including with fellow Clark alums. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to Clarkies,” Thomas said, noting that Memphis resident Justin Bailey ’00 was invaluable in getting her connected to the local community.
“There’s nothing wrong with seeking out those [Clark] contacts — that’s how the world works,” Cherry said. “Remember when you’re networking it’s not about what that person can do for you, it’s about what you can do for them.”
Egbuzie added that students should focus on refining their presentation skills to help ensure their ideas are given serious consideration. Camilus encouraged the students to insist that they be paid commensurate with their performance.
“Learn to celebrate who you are,” Sams advised. “Know what you are capable of doing, and what you bring because of who you are.”
Aiyetoro said it’s important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses, which will serve you in the workplace and beyond. She told the gathered students that she recently was inducted into the Order of the Fleur de Lis Hall of Fame at the Saint Louis University School of Law in recognition of her years battling racial discrimination in the justice system. Aiyetoro credited her long family history of community activism with helping shape her ambitions and fuel her success. “I stand on their shoulders,” she said.