UMSL celebrates 50 years of black student leadership

by | Feb 19, 2017

Brandi Fields, president of UMSL’s Associated Black Collegians, and ABC co-founder Bobby Norfolk were among a crowd of current and former student leaders who gathered together Feb. 18.
ABC then and now

Nursing major Brandi Fields (at left), the current president of UMSL’s Associated Black Collegians, met one of the student organization’s co-founders, alumnus Bobby Norfolk, at a campus gathering Feb. 18. The Leaders and Luminaries event drew a crowd of Tritons whose experiences at UMSL span five different decades in the university’s development. (Photo by Evie Hemphill)

Standing inside the Office of Student Involvement at the University of Missouri­–St. Louis on Saturday night, Kelcy Siddall felt right at home.

“I don’t always remember the classes I’ve taken,” said the UMSL alumnus, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the university in 2008 and then a master’s in 2011. “What I remember most is student life.”

That’s not to say there weren’t a few surprises upon arriving that evening, including his first glimpse of the striking – and glowing – Recreation and Wellness Center.

“When I drove up to the parking lot, it looked like a spaceship had landed in the middle of campus,” he said with a laugh.

Hardly alone in that sense of his alma mater as both familiar and different, Siddall was among a crowd of UMSL alumni and students who gathered for the biennial Leaders and Luminaries Reunion at the conclusion of this year’s homecoming festivities.

The Feb. 18 reception brought together current and former student leaders from the Associated Black Collegians, the Black Leadership Organizing Council and several other campus organizations that have played active roles through the years.

“This is just a really beautiful event and a pleasure to meet you all,” said current ABC President Brandi Fields, a nursing student at UMSL.

During her formal remarks, Fields recalled the difference the student organization made for her personally as an out-of-town freshman new to campus and to the city just a few years ago.

“ABC is near and dear to me because I’m not from St. Louis,” she said. “I’ve found it to be a great support system, and I want to be able to give that feeling to another student.”

For Fields, a highlight of the evening was the opportunity to meet one of ABC’s original co-founders, UMSL alumnus Bobby Norfolk, who is also an acclaimed storyteller, teaching artist and author.

As the two conversed, the themes of community service, collaboration and action kept coming up.

Norfolk remembered pushing for the addition of African American studies to college offerings throughout the region, raising awareness about lead-based paint in north St. Louis and being highly active in the political realm when ABC was formally organized in the early 1970s, following its beginnings in the late ’60s.

Fields recognized some similarities between then and now, particularly when it comes to outreach beyond the borders of campus and engagement with current issues.

“We’re getting more and more involved in the community,” she said, noting that the organization hosts a service day every month, various special events and also weekly study nights.

In Siddall’s experience, those various initiatives and opportunities can be life-changing. His decision to join a student-driven trip to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum stands out to him looking back.

“The rest is history,” Siddall says. “The next year I joined ABC and later student government.”

Soon after he also helped to spearhead the Black Leadership Organizing Council, which worked alongside ABC for a number of years. While it was active, BLOC sparked the interest of Dannie Boyd, another alumnus in attendance at the reception Saturday night.

Boyd recalled transferring from St. Louis Community College­–Florissant Valley in 2009 and being delighted to discover BLOC and other student organizations at UMSL.

“It really helped me meet a lot of people on campus,” said Boyd. He eventually served as treasurer of BLOC and is now a journalist as well as an adjunct faculty member teaching courses through UMSL’s Advanced Credit Program.

One of those people he met early on was Siddall, who continues to value the sense of community and moral support that BLOC, ABC and other campus entities have provided for students.

“Sometimes in class you kind of feel isolated, especially as a person of color,” Siddall said. “These groups help grow a community of support, raise awareness about challenges and also have fun.”

At one point during the evening, which included a lively performance of spoken-word poetry by Norfolk, Assistant Dean of Students Miriam Roccia asked for a show of hands by decade, and it became clear that those in attendance included UMSL students from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s.

Pamela Ford, who earned an accounting degree in 1997 and is the mother of two 2016 UMSL graduates as well, enjoyed connecting with fellow Tritons at the reunion.

“I’m always happy to encourage the youth and meet them and see if there’s anything I can do to help them become all they can be,” she said.

Members of the UMSL Alumni Association’s African American Alumni Chapter were also in attendance. The reunion is just one of a variety of events and initiatives that put them in frequent contact with current UMSL students, as Mildred Simmons pointed out.

Earning her bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1978, Simmons said that she enjoys staying involved as a UMSL alumna to keep her mind active, continue learning and “motivate these students and keep them growing.”

“They keep me young,” she added. “I feel like this is my second home, and I’m also a volunteer at the Touhill.”

The UMSL Experience

Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill