Detroit to Houghton, Husky Network Builds Mentorships and Memories

Six people facing us with a brick wall background in a Greektown pizzeria at the African American Alumni Association gathering for Michigan Tech in Detroit. Two people have their backs to the camera.
Six people facing us with a brick wall background in a Greektown pizzeria at the African American Alumni Association gathering for Michigan Tech in Detroit. Two people have their backs to the camera.
Alumni Sean Branner, '15, left, and Travis Tidwell, '19, '20, join past, present and future Huskies at the African American Alumni Association's annual Detroit-area reunion.

On June 26, this season of reunions and re-emergence was also a time for introductions, as Michigan Tech’s first Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion (VPDI) met with Detroit area alumni and friends.

Wayne Gersie, VPDI at Michigan Technological University, attended the African-American Alumni Association (A4) annual picnic in Detroit. Also there were Michigan Tech Board of Trustees Chair Brenda Ryan ’76; Board of Trustees member Derhun D. Sanders ’97; and Darnishia (Slade) Morris ’98, manager of Global Engagement Programs at MTU’s Pavlis Honors College and Michigan Community Service Commission member.

Michigan Tech's incoming Dean of Students Wallace Southerland III was also on hand, along with five prospective students and their families, two current students, and 13 alumni and their families.

The picnic was originally set for the Detroit Riverwalk, but was shifted downtown to Greektown because of weather (Huskies are nothing if not flexible). As always, it was a time to pull out photo albums and reminisce — and to welcome new and prospective Huskies to the fold. 

A group of Michigan Technological University Black alumni and prospective students pose for a group shot in front of a brick wall in Detroit's Greektown.
Huskies renew friendships and make new friends at the annual picnic. (Image credit: Paige Short)


An older woman talks with a younger man in a wooden restaurant booth with iron-scrolled black grilling behind them.
MTU Board of Trustees Chair Brenda Ryan talks with Jimmie Cannon ’20.

Morris said A4 became less active about 10 years ago. “Some of us, including Doris Strong, felt strongly about relaunching the annual picnic, which we did four or five years ago,” she said. As a former regional admissions manager (RAM) for Tech, Morris knows how important it is for prospective Huskies and their families to see familiar faces in their own community and in Houghton. 

Strong, who graduated in 1997, is no stranger to parenting MTU Huskies. She’s mom to both a recent graduate (who begins master’s studies in the fall) and an incoming first-year student.

“The A4 picnic is significant because students get started building their communities early,” Strong said. “You get to meet new faces that you may not see on campus otherwise. Your children begin to meet and form a family and build their community now, before they travel so far away from you.”

Morris said she and Strong were pleased with the engagement among the group of 34.

“Students and their families want to meet people who have gone through the experience,” she said. “I know how many uncertainties I had. Anything we can do to ease that — a mentor from their major, prospective students who can connect with their peers, parents who can make connections and find resources — the layers of experience are all important.”

VPDI Action Plan

Follow the blog, find resources and stay connected to efforts to foster and maintain a sense of belonging in the Michigan Tech community via the VPDI website.

Gersie appreciated everyone's participation in the event, which he said lays a strong foundation for the ongoing resources available to students through the MTU campus community and alumni network.

Five people stand in a restaurant near a pizza table with others sitting in the background with wood-finished walls and many wearing Michigan Technological University Huskies t-shirts and other swag at the African American Alumni Association annual picnic in Detroit.
From left, Darnishia (Slade) Morris ’98, Doris Strong ’97, Cornelius Strong ’97, current Tech student Jailynn Johnson (chemistry), and MTU Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Wayne Gersie hang out with other Huskies in downtown Detroit's Greektown. The annual A4 picnic is usually held outdoors, but stormy June weather ruled that out. 

“Students and their parents are here to know that when they come to Michigan Tech, there's a support system in place that's going to help them matriculate successfully through the process, providing care and ensuring a sense of belonging for them,” said Gersie. “If they don't feel that, then the anxiety and the feeling of impostor syndrome can be heightened. But when they have the support to be successful and connect with mentors and resources, they can turn out like these alumni who are here sharing their stories.”

"Events like A4 are critical to helping students who are coming to Michigan Tech with hopes and aspirations of getting a degree, taking that degree and translating it into improving their quality of life for themselves, their families and their communities. It allows them to see and hear from role models who have already achieved, like our alumni."Wayne Gersie, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion

Morris said for her, the reunion rejuvenates the commitment to strengthen the bonds between her hometown and Michigan Tech. 

"I'm straight-up Detroit. I feel some level of responsibility to keep our alumni connected to what's happening on campus."Darnishia (Slade) Morris ’98, A4 Organizer

Board member and alumnus Sanders said the downstate gathering means a lot to Huskies. “Just because you don't cross the bridge and do that 500-and-some-odd-mile drive doesn't mean that you're not as much in love with Michigan Tech as any other person,” he said. “And so, it's always good to reconnect with alumni at this event.” The gathering is important for prospective students who haven’t visited campus because they’re able to get a sense of the Tech experience through the powerful stories alumni share, Sanders said.

“This is a testament to Michigan Tech and the reputation that the University has all the way down here in the Detroit area of Michigan,” Sanders said.

Increasing outreach in the Detroit area is an important part of Michigan Tech’s mission. In addition to visiting with alumni, Gersie connected face-to-face with groups and individuals he’s been actively working with since he arrived on campus in late 2020 — including Bruce Ross of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Mike Reed of the Detroit Zoological Society, Lionel Bradford with the Greening of Detroit and Robert Magee of the Engineering Society of Detroit (it was a welcome change from Zoom meetings).

This is the last of a three-part Michigan Tech News series on diversity and inclusion initiatives at Michigan Tech. Get news updates, find resources and discover how you can support initiatives for diversity, inclusion and a sense of belonging on the VPDI website.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.