Ameerah McBride, Esq., chief diversity officer, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).
(Photo: Ameerah McBride, Esq., JD '97, speaking with other panelists prior to the event.)

Success stories were spotlighted at Ohio Northern University’s Black History Month 2024 campus panel discussion, where six spoke about their careers, challenges, and triumphs.
“We hope to learn about making space for unheard voices, and the benefits for all in participating in a diverse, kind, and welcoming community,” said panel moderator Adriane Thompson Bradshaw, Ph.D., vice president for student affairs.

Participants included:
·      Judge Jessica Price Smith, JD ’97, U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge representing Ohio and an ONU Board of Trustees member;
·      Ameerah McBride, Esq., JD ’13, chief diversity officer, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), and an ONU College of Law Advisory Board member;
·      Chelsea Mack, BSBA ’11, mentoring attorney for Afghan Projects with VECINA, and a 2023 William L. Robinson Young Alumni Award recipient;
·      Charles Bates, Ph.D., ONU professor of music and director of University Bands;
·      Sammie Coates, Jr., ONU assistant football coach; and
·      Holton Watson, BSBA ’20, ONU assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Development.

Redirection was a key component of Watson’s career start. With an injury derailing his football dreams and COVID complicating his senior year at ONU, he had to identify new goals. As a campus leader of organizations such as Brother 2 Brother and Black Student Union (BSU), those skills landed him a job at his alma mater, where he now serves a key role in championing multicultural initiatives.

“This is me growing up from just being a football player,” he said, and embracing the “many different avenues” that ONU has to offer students and alumni.

McBride never thought her law degree would take her to faraway places to work with astrophysicists and engineers, but it has. The nonprofit AURA manages ground solar and space-based observatories for NASA and the National Science Foundation. She is therefore well-versed in the intricacies of the Hubble and James Webb telescopes. She also “dabbles” in law at her own firm, where she focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion, and has worked at university Title IX offices, too.

McBride, who, as a nontraditional student at ONU Law in that she was married and a mother, credits the Black Law Student Association for her “ability to graduate because I didn’t think I was going to make it, but they wrapped their arms around me and pushed me over the finish line. That organization was central to my survival,” she said.

Mac said her major (now obsolete at ONU) in international business and economics “catapulted me to where I am today,” as did the support she received from BSU. She traveled the world through study-abroad programs, took a circuitous route to law school, and worked in Uganda for what was the equivalent of an attorney general’s office. She now serves as an immigration attorney in Cleveland, mentoring attorneys who are working with evacuated Afghans seeking asylum and their family members who also hope to immigrate to the U.S. 

Judge Smith said she came to ONU Law “by happenstance,” and through rolling admissions. “I loved it. I loved the accessibility of my professors” and eventually fell in love with bankruptcy law, doing trial work and appeals through a clerkship before becoming a judge.

Coates, who has been an assistant football coach at ONU for two years, took the job not knowing anything about Ohio Northern, in part because the campus atmosphere reminded him of his alma mater, Auburn University. “You just feel like you can be yourself here,” he said. “This place is very special to me.” He now uses his skills as a Division I football player and former NFL wide receiver to guide Polar Bears on and off the gridiron.

“I feel like I’m doing something that I need to be doing, that has a purpose,” Coates continued. “When I’m coaching, when the kids come into my office, I can see them believing in me. It makes them work hard and it makes them strive to be something special.”

Bates, who earned his Ph.D. at Ohio State University where he was a teaching assistant with the marching band, has served as Ohio Northern’s band director for several years. He calls the university “the jewel of the Midwest. It’s one of those unsung places that create greatness, that has great people, where great things are done. And I believe I have the largest share of riches here because I get a chance to work with what I think are the finest students on campus.”

Thompson Bradshaw asked the panel to share insight about the origins of their passion to serve.

Coates said football has showed him how help from others, even in the smallest of ways, can make all the difference. “There were so many times I wanted to give up,” he said. “My dad died when I was 8 years old in a car accident. My mom was never at home when I was growing up. So, I basically raised myself.” A friend’s insistence that he attend a football camp at Auburn for promising athletes changed everything. A circle of good friends and supporters kept him going. “People always ask me what’s my favorite thing about coaching. I say that it’s about teaching them how to be a man, to not just be a football player… and that playing football is temporary.”

“I’ve often found myself in places with people who don’t look like me,” said Smith. “The one thing that you feel when you are other, or different, is the desire to belong, the desire to just be able to be. From that, I took away the need to always make sure that the place I was in was better when I left.” Her Catholic faith has also been foundational from a service perspective, she explained. “It helps you to understand that the world is bigger than you.”

“If you believe that you are meant to be here, and if you believe there is a purpose in what you do, how can you not serve?” Smith asked.

Watson said when he was a child, there were two people “who believed that I could be anything… my mother and my football coach.” He finds great value in his work “because I know that they (students) need to hear from someone else, ‘You can do this,’ regardless of what it is.” Many students are so busy finding ways to meet their own basic needs that they don’t hear such encouragement from others, or know how to cultivate it in themselves, he pointed out.

“The pourback” is what Watson said he believes in and practices. Using one’s knowledge to uplift others is one of the most rewarding acts of service, he said, because it allows others “to get a head start on whatever their goals and dreams are.”

When asked how people of color can best be supported in order to soar, the panel emphasized the power of individuality and dialogue.

Smith pointed out that because everyone’s needs, preferences, and choices are different, it’s essential for others to find ways to understand them first.

“The dominant culture is not talking about black people. You’re talking to black people,” said Bates. “But you have to talk to the person because the person could be… totally different. Go to the person and say, ‘I want to talk to you and see how you feel about this.’”