Its founders had one single, important motivation: to help USC students from minority communities succeed.
The USC Black Alumni Association (BAA) has been doing just that for decades. The group celebrates its 40th anniversary with a gala today that honors six prominent black USC alumni. But consistent with the BAA’s origins, sprinkled throughout the ballroom will be Trojan undergraduates and graduate students who receive scholarships, mentoring or other support from the organization.
“There’s a cultural outlook: Lift as you climb,” said Michèle G. Turner ’81, EdD ’14, BAA executive director. “Every single person who volunteers on one of our committees or the board, their objective is to help a student.”
Patrick Auerbach, associate senior vice president for alumni relations, praised the group’s longstanding emphasis on helping students. “For four decades, the BAA has been a champion for progress and growth here at USC. We are proud of the BAA’s role in the Trojan Family and look forward to its continued success as our university continues its ascent as a leader in higher education,” Auerbach said.
The early days
The association’s leaders themed their celebration “Legacy 360°,” Turner said, to encompass “how we look back and embrace history, and take the lessons we learn from history to honor our future.”
BAA’s roots reach back to the 1970s, when five men and women came together to create scholarships to help black, Latino and Asian students attend USC. Pastor and civil rights leader Thomas Kilgore Jr. brought in two leading Los Angeles couples to help form what was then known as the Ebonics Support Group: financial executive Peter Dauterive ’49 and education leader Verna Dauterive ME ’49, EdD ’66; and pioneering attorney and judge Thomas L. Griffith Jr. and his wife, Portia Griffith.
Over time, as other Latino and Asian support groups formed, the organization honed in on the needs of black students, Turner explained. Now the BAA provides 140 to 150 scholarships each year, with recipients denoted as BAA Scholars. Scholarships average about $3,000 for undergraduates and $1,000 for graduate students each year, and often allow students to focus more intently on school rather than fitting studies around part-time jobs.
The group not only raises money for scholarships, but also has provided a concerted mentoring and social support program for students for the last eight years. Some 175 students each year participate in the program, which links each of them with a dedicated alumnus or alumna. Participants speak at least once a week, and mentors help build students’ support network during and after college. “Every one of the mentored students has graduated,” Turner said.
Even if they’re not BAA Scholars or mentoring program participants, incoming black students can be part of the family through a special pinning ceremony. Alumni bestow each student with a lapel pin that features the “Traits of a Trojan” in African Yoruban symbols. At graduation, students receive another pin with the BAA logo.
At a time when racism and free speech are in the headlines, students get to know successful alumni through BAA who have lived through experiences similar to their own. Those connections are affirming.
We tell students, ‘You have a family, and we’re a key resource in the conversation for you.’ Our students feel more at home and grounded.
Michèle G. Turner
“When the big conversation is about campus climate, these are the kinds of things that create a sense of belonging,” Turner said. “We tell students, ‘You have a family, and we’re a key resource in the conversation for you.’ Our students feel more at home and grounded.”
USC BAA today has some 80 to 100 mentors each year and four major committees with about 20 people each. Every one of the 25 members on its advisory council contributes funds for scholarships. The group has more volunteers than ever, Turner said. “Anybody who connects to the BAA embodies the unsung hero.”
Kilgore, the lead founder, wanted the group’s scholarship endowment to reach $1 million. BAA’s principal hit that in 2015. Now the group aims to reach $5 million.
And because of conversations about diversity at USC, the BAA finds itself connecting more closely with individual schools across the university. The group aims to partner with schools to understand how to best serve each school’s students, integrating itself into USC’s institutions. Ultimately, BAA wants to bring its alumni resources and mentoring, sponsorships and support to align with each school’s academic mission — and its programs.
Said Turner: “I think the best for the organization is yet to come.”