Growing up in Enterprise, Ala., Sherell Harrison participated in gymnastics and played sports with neighboring children and her two older brothers. When it was time to select a college, campus visits were not on her agenda.
“I always knew where I wanted to go — Alabama,” Harrison said.
As an African-American, Harrison said she did not consider anything more than the normal issues freshmen face when going to college. Her two brothers’ enrollment at the University gave her opportunities to spend time on campus. She had not felt uncomfortable or experienced prejudices on her visits, so following the family tradition was an easy decision; she was Tuscaloosa-bound.
Harrison received her accounting degree in May. Her pleasant tone and ease when discussing her collegiate career indicates that she has been happy with her choice of the Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration. Although she feels comfortable among her peers, Harrison understands the value of recruiting and maintaining a diverse student body and faculty.
“You feel more comfortable if you’re around your own race,” said the UA graduate student.
Dealing with diversity can be a daunting task. But the Culverhouse College of Commerce has created a welcoming environment and level playing field for all students. Joining the University’s goal to recruit and retain a diverse campus community, Culverhouse is proud of its student body, according to William E. Jackson III, professor of finance.
“Not only are we a diverse group, but a group that is succeeding,” Jackson said about Culverhouse.
He holds a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago. Prior to joining the UA faculty, he worked as a financial economist and associate policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. He was also a tenured professor of finance at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Jackson, an African-American, has experienced not-so-flattering comments about universities located below the Mason-Dixon Line.
“People think Southern universities are about football, with little priority on quality academics, and the universities are not challenging,” he said. “I realized early on, Culverhouse is something special. This is a diamond — and not in the rough.”
Upon his arrival in 2007, he found the College staff more diverse than the staff he left behind in Atlanta at the Federal Reserve Bank.
Harrison agrees that uninformed people do not know the value and comfort level at the UA business school.
“When I go home, a lot of people don’t realize the University is as diverse as it is,” she said. “They think I’m the only African-American here.”
Of course, Harrison wants others to know the values of her school, as well as its diverse population, so she invites friends to visit.
The number of black students in Culverhouse increased 26.7 percent from Fall Semester 2006 to Fall Semester 2010 (from 491 to 622 students), resulting in an increased representation of black students overall. In fact, the numbers jumped from 9.4 percent in 2006 to 10 percent in 2010. In Fall Semester 2010, minorities composed 23.7 percent of the business school’s total enrollment. Diversity matters — not to meet a quota — but to prepare students for life, work and interaction in a diverse world.
As a young boy, Jonathan Simon recognized that he did not have the “knack for sports,” so his challenges came from playing Mario, Super Sonics and other sports-related video games. And he excelled in academics.
The fifth in his family to graduate from college, Simon is the first to hold degrees from the University (bachelor’s degree in 2009 and master’s degree in 2011). Prior to choosing Alabama, he considered The University of Alabama at Birmingham, Florida A&M and Tennessee State.
“I toured all campuses, even Auburn, but I really liked the (UA) campus. I thought I would fit in here,” Simon said.
Although he was offered a scholarship at another school, the young African-American felt strongly that he belonged in Tuscaloosa. He also considered school-name recognition an asset.
“I knew that no matter where I went, the name would click, even if it was for football — just that name recognition,” he said proudly.
Simon took advantage of opportunities to network during his second year at UA, when the sophomore found himself in Lisa McKinney’s accounting class.
“I was considering accounting, and she did a great job of reeling me in,” he said.
McKinney saw Simon’s potential for success in a field with few minorities. McKinney, adviser to the student chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants, encouraged Simon to get involved with NABA.
“NABA helped lay the footwork for getting this job,” said Simon, now an accountant for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Birmingham, Ala. “(NABA) was a way to network with other minorities in accounting, a way to meet other people going through some of the same struggles as me.”
NABA is open to minority students who are majoring in business. Members have access to programs and services designed to address their needs in business. They meet successful business leaders who discuss and answer questions about topics, such as “What Employers Don’t Like About Your Generation and What You Can Do About It” and “Career Opportunities.” In only its third year, the UA chapter placed first in the Southern Region Conference in student-chapter reporting and evaluation program for 2010.
“As a minority, this institution is great, and they are trying to improve relationships between minorities and non-minorities,” Simon said. “They have come a long way since (former Alabama Gov. George Wallace) standing in the door and said they didn’t want minorities to come.”
McKinney also coordinates NABA’s Accounting Career Awareness Program, a one-week residency program for high school students held each summer.
“ACAP introduces students to career opportunities in accounting through a carefully constructed curriculum that involves Culverhouse faculty and guest lecturers from business and government,” McKinney said.
A nonprofit organization and the only program of its kind in Alabama, ACAP received funding in 2011 from Alabama Power Co., Ernst & Young, LLP, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Deloitte, KMPG, Dixon Hughes PLLC, the Culverhouse College of Commerce and the ASCPA. Because of this funding, there is no cost to participate. ACAP ranks third in the nation in local chapter participation, a spot it achieved in only its second year of existence. The local chapter has 40 participants.
Through ACAP, high school students receive information about maintaining cultural and ethnic identities, business integrity, accounting, college admissions and financial aid processes, culture and diversity, cash management and financial planning, and more.
“We try to give them the ins and outs of internships, available jobs, potential travel and other opportunities they have after we train them to be of value,” McKinney said.
“I encourage minorities to go to a school that has these good academics and good social life,” Simon said. “Everyone is not going to look like you, but in the real world, it’s going to be the same. Don’t let being a minority let you not go anywhere.”
More than a decade ago, professor Diane Johnson recognized the need for a mentoring program to help female students — who at the time were another minority in the business school — prepare for the job market. Not only were some of her students asking how to prepare for job interviews, but some inquired about social graces at meals during those job interviews. The Women’s Initiative became reality when support — both financially and mentor volunteers — arrived in its first year from female Culverhouse graduates.
Today, the Women’s Initiative has grown from six mentors and mentees to almost 100 pairs and more than 300 individuals attending sessions. It is a welcome aid for female students in the College beginning their sophomore years. Through educational sessions and one-to-one mentoring with leading business executives, students learn about preparing for careers, writing résumés, interviewing skills, balancing work and personal life, and more. Some topics are chosen as specific needs are identified. For instance, mentees attended a session where a voice coach taught them to project their voices and to speak confidently.
“Mentees are provided with the knowledge to help make them the best business women possible,” Johnson said.
The Women’s Initiative has been so successful that plans are being made for a similar mentoring program for all business school students.
When Gary Hoover came to UA in 1998, he knew there was no one on the faculty that looked like him. His first day on the job was filled with greetings from the all-white faculty and from one African-American faculty member who shared his hire date. The Milwaukee, Wis., native brought his doctorate degree of two months to Tuscaloosa. He began teaching economics, concentrating on publishing and meeting students.
Sitting in his office, with a wall covered with numbered bibs from past marathons and plants positioned perfectly in the sunlight streaming through the window, Hoover recall