By David Medina
The most festive event of the yearlong celebration of 50 years of black undergraduate life at Rice took place Oct. 1 with a gala at the Bell Tower, where six people were honored for their distinguished service to the university and to the community.
More than 300 people attended the Blueprint for Excellence Gala that was organized by the Association of Rice University Black Alumni (ARUBA) and supported by the President’s Office, the Department of Alumni Relations and Public Affairs.
Rice President David Leebron expressed his thanks to ARUBA and the gala dinner co-chairs, noting that the celebration would not have happened without their leadership and that is was a true partnership between ARUBA and the university.
“This is truly a celebration of both diversity and excellence, and a recognition that diversity is indeed part of the blueprint for excellence,” Leebron said. “And that we at Rice are committed to that blueprint.”
Alex Byrd ’90 and Andrea Ehlers ’88 received the Outstanding Achievement in Service and Contributions to the University award.
During his college years at Rice, Byrd created a summer program for middle school students from underserved communities, led the “State of Black Rice” symposium and worked closely with the forerunner of the Multicultural Affairs office at Rice. Byrd, associate professor of history, has received several teaching awards and was master of Wiess College, where he held a series of African-American studies classes.
Byrd said he remembers when former Rice history professor Gale Stokes emailed him with a cryptic message about having a phone conversation. Byrd said he was at Duke University at the time and was two years away from completing his doctoral dissertation. But Stokes wanted Byrd to finish his dissertation in residence at Rice. “I appreciate all the hard work and creativity it took to bring me to the university,” Byrd said.
Ehlers worked to enhance the Career Services Center when she was an undergraduate. After graduating, she served on the Association of Rice Alumni board, founded the Rice University Professional and Business Women Group, helped organize the Young Alumni Homecoming tent event for many years and contributed financially to the documentary “Young, Gifted and Black: Reflections from Black Alumni at Rice” for Rice’s Centennial Celebration in 2012. She created the RICE-TMS scholarship program (Recruitment Into Collegiate Education Through Minority Scholarships) as a direct response to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ Hopwood decision, which limited consideration of race in college admissions.
Ehlers said that it wasn’t easy getting into Rice and that she had to work hard to stay at Rice. “But one thing I can say is that I never felt I did not belong at Rice, that I did not fit here,” she said. “I encountered nothing but acceptance, inclusion and welcome at this university during my entire four years as a student and in all the subsequent years I have been involved.”
Joseph Branch ’04, who is a lecturer in sport management at Rice, received the Outstanding Achievement in Career award. He received his undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and his MBA from Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. He has worked at some of the most prominent sports companies in the world, including Nike, the NBA, Landmark Sports and Roc Nation.
Branch dedicated his award to his mother, Laura Branch Hamilton, who was senior associate registrar at Rice. “She allowed me to join her at the Faculty Club, interact with various administrators and professors and even find my way to Autry Court day after day,” he said. “I saw the countless students and student-athletes she mentored while at Rice for over 32 years. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning valuable lessons that would set the path for my career.”
Janis Scott ’74 received the Outstanding Achievement in Civic and Community Service award. Scott was recognized for her critical input, advocacy and support on issues important to Houstonians, especially in areas related to public transportation and its impact on underserved communities. Known affectionately as the “Bus Lady” by students and community members alike, she not only dedicates her personal time to champion reliable transit, but she also uses the bus system to enrich the lives of those around her, whether she is providing directions to strangers, helping Rice students explore Houston’s diverse communities and cultural venues or encouraging bus riders to register to vote.
“Riding the bus often by Rice University on Main Street, with squirrels and pretty trees, I was always told I could not go there,” Scott said. “But I put my little hand on my hip and declared that I’d have to fix that! Thank you if you’ve ever given me a hand and lifted me up. If you held my hand and consoled me in trying times, or prayed for me, or hugged me or wrote a check, I am so grateful.”
Rodrigo Barnes ’73 and Roland Smith were honored with the Legacy Award.
Playing linebacker for the football team, Barnes was one of the first black athletes at Rice and the first African-American to be named to an All-Southwest Conference defensive team. As a student, he helped organize the Black Student Union and advocated for greater black representation among teachers and coaches. After graduating from Rice with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, behavioral science, and health and physical education, Barnes was drafted in 1973 by the Dallas Cowboys. He played with the New England Patriots, the Miami Dolphins and was part of the Oakland Raiders team that won the Super Bowl in 1976. A year later, injuries forced him to retire from professional football. Rodrigo was inducted into the Rice Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011. He has been with the Garland Independent School District since 2007.
Barnes said he was thankful for everything Rice has done for him. “I love Rice,” he said. He explained that he might have done certain things that at the time did not appear as if he cared for the university, but he needed to do them in order to help other black students.
Smith, associate provost and adjunct professor in sociology at Rice, designed and now directs the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and chairs the Rice Council on Diversity and Inclusion. He mentors students and serves on the Graduate Council and Institutional Review Board and is the principal investigator and coordinator for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, which supports minority undergraduate students pursuing a Ph.D. in the arts and sciences. He has served as an adviser to the Black Student Association, the Melodious Voices of Praise and the Hispanic Association for Cultural Enrichment at Rice and has sponsored students to attend major diversity-related conferences. Smith has been an active associate of Will Rice College and was honored by Will Rice in 2016 as the Outstanding Faculty Associate.
Smith said he feels fortunate to have made so many friends at Rice. “It might be risky to start naming names for fear of missing someone. However, I will venture to mention three individuals: Chandler Davidson, who was the first to interview me and later encouraged me to teach for the Sociology Department; Gloria Bean, who was assigned to me temporarily but became a vital partner in the development of our office; and Akilah Mance, whom I met when she was a sophomore and became BSA president. Today she is an attorney and ARUBA president.”
During the gala a video celebrating 50 years of black undergraduate life at Rice was shown (see below). Also posted below is a gallery of photos from the gala and other events held Sept. 30-Oct. 1 as part of the celebration of 50 years of black undergraduate life at Rice: a panel on “The State of Black Life at Rice” and the 50th Celebration Reunion Party.
–David Medina is director of multicultural community relations in the Office of Public Affairs.