The Black Empowerment Student Alliance at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota held its annual Black Excellence Gala on Sunday, May 7. The group, which promotes Black culture and Black presence on campus and in the community at large, introduced student, faculty and staff speakers. There was also a musical performance by a local up-and-coming choir that started with "Lift Every Voice and Sing," known as the Black National Anthem.
Yubi Hassan ’24, an entrepreneurship major with a theology minor, inspired the group, speaking about how he has started three businesses since the age of 19. One of them, Yedi Detailing, yielded six figures in revenue in about a six-month period. He later sold the company.
He told the student attendees that now is the time to seize the day. “I feel like once you graduate, you would need to start worrying about jobs. You need to start paying bills, do a lot of things. I feel like while in college is the best time for you to just take more risks. Do something right now while here,” he said.
Another tip he offered is to help others and to seek help. “One of the things that helped me a lot was finding mentors and them helping me out. Not everybody is going to help, but ask,” he said. “Of one out of 10 people you ask, at least six people are going to say yes, so don’t get turned off by the four people who say no, just focus on the ones who say yes and those ones who say yes will actually put you at least two to three years ahead (of your goals).”
Hassan said, “BESA gave me the opportunity and confidence to believe in myself and set an example for other students to achieve more and be part of a proud and supportive family.”
Dr. Kenneth Cooper, director of Ciresi Walburn Leadership Fellows & Excel! Research Scholars programs, joined social work adjunct faculty member Shanea Turner Smith and St. Thomas Public Safety Lt. Reginald Wright, who is the BESA adviser, for a panel discussion led by student moderators.
“BESA continues to be a safe and transformative space for our students, particularly those of color,” Cooper said. “Their gala was a showcase of the Black experience and how our stories are woven into the fabric of St. Thomas. We saw folks sing, dance, laugh, cry and fellowship. BESA means a great deal to them. It means a great deal to me.”
Director of Retention and Student Success Tonia Peterson, who has worked at St. Thomas for 16 years across three positions, said she has seen the number of students of color at the university grow from 10% to upward of 25%, approaching 27%. “I love seeing that growth,” she said.
She told stories of a few of the alumni she met when she started in her first role as an academic counselor at St. Thomas, many of them have now started their own businesses, such as Sahr Brima, owner of Love You Cookie, and Lauren Miller, founder of Black Girl in Om.
“Oftentimes we think about those who are exceptional,” Peterson said, asking rhetorically, “What is exceptional?”
Answering her own question, she said, “I look out in this room and I see a room full of exceptional people. I see a room full of people who are changemakers. I see students who are seniors who are going to go out into this world and make tremendous change. Big or small you will have an impact in whatever you do, and own it. Own your story and your greatness.”