When Alex Dixon stepped foot on the Yard for the first time in 1999, he did not know Tanesha Willis. However, the two classmates were on the verge of forming a friendship that would last 20 years, and ultimately underpin their graduating class’ million-dollar resolve to give back to Howard.
As the 20th Homecoming anniversary for the class of 2023 approaches, Dixon, Willis and the 2003 class have committed to raise a total of $1 million for Howard within the next 10 years, having been inspired by the culture they had built and the memories they had at the Mecca.
Dixon, who is co-chair of the reunion, is president and CEO of Q Casino and DRA, a nonprofit casino based in Iowa. He is a former Mr. Howard University and vice president of HUSA. He met his co-chair Willis during his freshman year. Willis, from South Jersey, works for the Census Bureau and served as vice president of the School of Business in her time at Howard. “We’re really best of friends to this day,” Dixon said.
When Willis noticed there was no plan for a commemoration of their 20th reunion, she jumped to the task of planning and setting up an opportunity for their class to meet again.
The 2003 alumni are being asked to commit to donations of $333 per person in order to help reach their goal by the end of this given time. According to their press release, other fundraising efforts include the selling of alumni-designed tumblers and shirts. The effort also has a website where people can give, and the class has its own alumni page.
The commitment begins with a goal of raising $100,000 during Howard’s 2023 Homecoming period. During this period, the class of 2003 has planned celebratory events under the theme “20 Years a Bison,” including events such as a welcome reception, alumni tailgate, and a “Mecca Block Party.”
Dixon emphasized that Howard had been able to instill a massive sense of drive within himself, as well as his peers and he noted that his aspirations for excellence came from the institution. He desires to pay that forward to future generations.
“No one comes to Howard saying, ‘I wanna be mediocre,’” Dixon said. “What gets drilled into us as Howard students and reaffirmed to us as alumni when we get to adult life, is that we are grateful for the lessons, people and the passions that get instilled in you at Howard.”
“This commitment to excellence is something that is wired into my DNA as a result of the four years I spent on campus,” Dixon added.
Willis, who is based in Florida, recalled fond memories of her time at Howard, and how she formed her friendship with Dixon. “We were both team leaders and in the executive leadership honors program together,” she said. “We met freshman year, and we’ve been thick as thieves since then.”
“A lot of people look to our class as the leaders for the millennium. We are the [high school] graduating class of 1999 and we graduated college in 2003, so there were a lot of things that shifted at the University once we came,” Willis said.
“I’m friends with everyone,” she continued. “The family that you choose are your friends.”
The co-chairs of the HU 2003 Class reunion highlighted the importance of their commitment, relaying the need for the groundwork to be put in place to allow for the next generation of Bison to “Lead from the Front,” according to the press release.
“The relationships and the soft skills I learned just by attending the university and being able to build those relationships prepared me for the real world. I want the youth of tomorrow to be able to experience the same Howard,” Willis said.
“I came from a single-parent mom,” she continued. “I really would like to see it [donations] be used for the students, whether it be a food library or clothes – the basic needs of students that are not being met.”
Dixon highlighted that despite the class’s current distance from Howard, they are still able to feel its impact. “We are now 20 years out from school, so we’re 42, 43 roughly, most of us, but the reality is that we’re still very much young alumni,” he said. “We want to come back with a purpose.”
Assistant Vice President of Strategic Communications Monica Lewis commented on the Class of 2003’s commitment.
“We look forward to seeing how our staff can work with them to provide guidance as they aim to raise the $100,000 threshold required to establish an endowed fund,” she said. “We also encourage alumni to support the events we’re hosting for Homecoming 2023 as proceeds from those events will go directly to the fund that supports our efforts to provide financial assistance and an extraordinary academic experience to our students.”
Many students agreed that this donation to the school might allow for a much-needed upgrade in areas around campus. Sebastian Borgaard, a senior mechanical engineering major from Boston noted how the donation is a big step forward, especially considering what he believes to be a common perception surrounding Howard that they do not really give back to the students or wider community.
“I think that it’s great, seeing alumni wanting to do stuff to make a change for the school,” Borgaard said. “Especially because you hear a lot of talk that money doesn’t go to the students. Hearing that the class is doing something like that is really great.” Borgaard attributes his long-lasting friendships to Howard and the environment that it fosters.
“I feel like a lot of the friends that I’ve made here at Howard are lifelong friends, we all connect very deep,” Borgaard continued. “It goes beyond just seeing each other and hanging out. We’re really close friends. Definitely, in 20 years I’ll be seeing everybody.”
Sophomore Byrce Tatum from Brooklyn, New York agreed that the money would be very useful in being able to give back to students, highlighting some areas in which he feels students would best be served.
“Enough funding would help us get a lot of other things, like performances at Yardfest and Springfest, and just amenities in general,” the civil engineering major said. Tatum commented on the conditions of Howard’s housing, with his dorm’s bathroom ceiling collapsing on him last year in Bethune Annex, and how donations like this could aid in preventative measures.
Despite this, the opportunity Howard brings to cultivate lifelong friendships rings true to him.
“We’re so close, we all live in the same quarters, we go to the same school, [and] some of us have similar majors,” he continued. “We have a lot more things in common than say high school or middle school.”
Dean of the Graduate School and Howard alumna Dana Williams, who earned her Master’s in 1995 and Ph.D. in 1998, was enthused by the effort made by the 2003 alumni. Having returned to the university as a faculty member in the Department of African American Literature in 2004, she noted how giving plays an essential role in making direct impacts on the school.
“I was glad to see an organized effort by a graduating class to raise funds that will support the university’s overall fundraising campaigns, but very specifically, will support the initiatives that the class is interested in supporting,” Williams said.
She believes that giving is an essential part of making a direct impact on the school, especially since she came to the school herself as a graduate student. “I could learn, I could live, I could play,” Williams continued. “I had colleagues who I could bounce ideas off of, I had students who were interested in the literature.” She went on to discuss the importance of homecoming for Howard Alum specifically.
“Whilst Homecoming is super exciting for the students that are on campus, the very notion of Homecoming is that students who have graduated would come home to celebrate, to remember,” she said. “I’m grateful that this class is thinking about returning home and giving back because that is the tradition of Homecoming. People remember their Howard experience fondly.”
“We celebrate, we reflect, but we’re also thinking about what’s next,” Willis added. “Homecoming is always a wonderful time of the year.”
Sophomore psychology major Kayla Gay from Ohio added how important it is to display Howard’s pride, whilst also acknowledging a need for donations in order to improve conditions for students in all colleges, as they are not all funded equally.
“I love Howard, I love the people at Howard,” she said. “I would love to give back to make it better. I would just have to feel confident that my money is going towards something that is helping all of the students.” She feels as though any donation money should go towards facilities and resources.
The Class of 2003’s reunion celebratory events kick off on Oct. 19 with the Welcome Reception. A full listing of this year’s Homecoming events can be found on Howard’s website.
Copy edited by Alana Matthew