UMBC’s Legends of Excellence Awards Brunch, sponsored by the Chapter of Black and Latino Alumni every five years, recently honored four awardees who have played instrumental roles in the success of UMBC’s African American and Latino students. Recipients and nominators alike spoke about the supportive community that is UMBC, and how their time on campus transformed their lives.
“We consider the award winners legends because of the indelible marks they have made on UMBC’s African American and Latino students over the past 50 years,” shared Tamara Lewis ’92, psychology, and event co-chair. The work these legends did to support minority students “made a positive difference, and our students not only survived, but thrived,” added Cynthia Hill, former associate provost for student support services.
Stanyell Odom, director of alumni relations, helped organize the event. “The legends represent grit and greatness,” she shared, “and it is wonderful to have so many alumni come back to campus to recognize the extraordinary impact they’ve made in the lives of hundreds and thousands of fellow Retrievers.”
The first legend honored this year, Simmona Simmons ’74, American studies, started work at the Albin O. Kuhn Library as UMBC opened its doors in 1966 and has served in many roles within the library since then. She is currently the service and special projects librarian and the library liaison to the Africana studies department.
“I always loved working with students,” Simmons shared, “as they discover new information and mature, it is exciting to contribute a small part to their success.” As the only library staff member of color in UMBC’s early days, she made a lasting impact on the first generation of diverse UMBC students.
Jessica Contreras ’98, social work, thanked the next honoree, Rev. Jamie Washington, for his positive influence. “Dr. Washington’s personality and leadership gave me the guidance I needed to explore and learn what it means to be a leader,” Contreras shared. “From him, I learned how to make authentic and meaningful connections with people from all walks of life.”
Washington served in a variety of roles in Residential Life and Student Affairs at UMBC between 1986 and 2002, before shifting his focus to the ministry. He is currently CEO of Washington Consulting Group, named one of the top 10 global diversity consulting groups in the world in 2015; co-pastor of Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore; and president and co-founder of the Social Justice Training institute.
Still, Washington manages to stay connected to campus by working with the Meyerhoff Summer Bridge Program and Residential and Student Life. “While I have left UMBC, UMBC has not left me,” he shared. “It will be permanently in my spirit and my energy.”
Earnestine Baker is the “mother of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program,” according to Maceo Thomas ’93, M1, biochemistry and molecular biology. He adds, “Many African Americans succeeded because she did not give up, no matter our circumstances or where we came from.”
Baker served as the first director of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, and was promoted to executive director in 2002, a position she held until her retirement in 2013. Along the way, she had a major impact on hundreds of students. And yet, Baker remains unfailingly humble.
“The thought that I am receiving this Legends honor today exemplifies my belief that when we achieve, it is usually because others helped us. So this is bigger than me,” she reflects. “It is about the more than 1,000 Meyerhoff Scholars whose lives touched mine, from the M1s who believed and validated the vision, to the M28s who are making their mark, carrying forth the legacy.”
Willie Lamousé-Smith, professor emeritus and former chair of Africana studies, arrived at UMBC in 1975. Some of his fondest memories involve standing with students as they demonstrated for racial equality. “UMBC would not be what it is today but for them,” he says.
Since his arrival on campus, Lamousé-Smith’s devotion to students in all areas of life, from academics, to finances, to health, has made a positive difference for hundreds of Retrievers. “The premier duty of educators—and parents, too—is to draw out and cultivate the talents encased in each student, within a nurturing and empathic environment,” he shares.
In his remarks, President Freeman Hrabowski commented that “many of you in this room began at UMBC and made a difference when the country was still trying to figure out if people of all races should come together, with all students of all types having a fair chance to succeed.” Today, Hrabowski says, “Everybody looks to UMBC to ask ‘How do you go about taking people from all kinds of backgrounds, and elevating them, and empowering them to be the very best?’”
The Legends of Excellence awardees are a big part of the answer to that question, along with so many other UMBC community members committed to the success of all students. Like the awardees, Hrabowski said, “We’re here because we celebrate the idea of inclusiveness.”
Banner image: Earnestine Baker (center, in gold) with nominator Maceo Thomas ’93 (left), Pres. Hrabowski (right), and Meyerhoff Scholars Program alumni.
All photos by Jay Baker for UMBC.