Black Alumni Share Life Lessons in Drexel University ‘Legacy’ Book

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Personal stories shared by more than 50 Black alumni of Drexel University are featured in the book “A Legacy to Share: Navigating Life’s Challenges and Celebrating Our Greatest Achievements.” Their unfiltered experiences are meant to inspire current students to be resilient and achieve success through lifelong learning, say alumni who worked on the project.

The book features a historical look at the school’s first Black graduate in 1900 and spans the decades since. The professional roles of those featured include NASA scientist, architect, doctor, fashion designer, FBI agent, tech pioneer, college president, movie producer, airline pilot, professional basketball player, and others.

Angela Dowd-Burton
Angela Dowd-Burton

Angela Dowd-Burton, who attended Drexel in the 1970s — a decade that saw the university’s largest enrollment of Black students — was inspired to launch the project in 2020, at a time when she saw society struggling under the twin realities of the pandemic and social unrest and while she personally faced her husband’s illness. She found unexpected solace during two large-group virtual conversations held in the spring, one with fellow Black Drexel alums and the other with peers from an MBA professional association.

“We were celebrating all that had been accomplished over our lifetimes, talking about careers, families, and the joy of being together,” Dowd-Burton says. “[Later that summer,] I reflected back on the joy of those two moments and decided that I wanted to capture that joy — bottle it — so we could take it out and do a refresh when the negativity got too great.”

As the book idea was set into motion, collecting stories and sharing them as inspiration for today’s students gave Dowd-Burton focus and purpose, she says. Before the writing process began, however, she first met with current Drexel students and posed the question “If you could pull back the curtain and get straight answers from those who walked before you, what would you ask?”

“They wanted to know from people who looked like them and who had similar experiences,” Dowd-Burton says. “They asked, ‘How do you overcome the noise when you run into people who don’t have high expectations of you?’ ‘How do you balance work and life?’ ‘How do you walk into a room of strangers with a level of confidence that allows you to introduce yourself and ask questions?’ They wanted lessons you don’t find in a textbook.”

The narratives are written in the authors’ own voices, “sharing the grit while promoting gratitude of those who assisted along the way,” says Dowd-Burton. “One of the things that I assured them was that this was their story, their authenticity, so whatever that story was, it would be respected.”

The stories highlight many challenges and how they were overcome, she says.

“We wanted readers to understand that life’s not easy … that there are people out there ready, willing, and able to help, but you have to know what you want,” says Dowd-Burton. “The important thing is to get started. You may not necessarily end up where you planned, but you’ll certainly get farther down the road than if you are paralyzed by the question ‘What do I do now?’”

Geoffrey L. Howland, a mechanical engineer, graduated from Drexel in 1976, and again in 1983 with a master’s degree in engineering management. He co-edited the book.

“Being a Black man, I am imagining if I had this book in my hand when I was a senior in high school or freshman coming into Drexel,” he told Drexel News. “If I had read all these stories of successful Black people and what they went through for that success, I think it would have further changed my trajectory of where my head was and where I was going.”

Dowd-Burton is a 1974 accounting graduate and a 1979 MBA alum. Her chapter in the legacy book is titled “Dream Big.” She describes a long and successful career in finance and procurement management as well as a lifelong dedication to learning and advocacy for women. She observes that it’s important for students to determine where they’re going and then to network — find those people along the way who are like-minded. 

“A Legacy to Share: Navigating Life’s Challenges and Celebrating Our Greatest Achievements,” now in its second printing, earned over $25,000 in the first three months of sales. Proceeds support the Drexel University Black Alumni Council scholarship fund. The book is produced and distributed on campus and is available online from the campus bookstore.

To purchase “A Legacy to Share: Navigating Life’s Challenges and Celebrating Our Greatest Achievements,” visit bit.ly/dubaclegacy.

This article was published in our July/August 2023 issue.