Duke has been at the center of a personal journey for Wilton Alston B.S.E. '81. From the first-party-of-freshman-year moment that he met Sharon President '81, who married him six years later, to his first visit to campus this summer as the new president of the Duke Alumni Association's board of directors, he's been "stepping up" to be a contributing member of the Duke community.
"It's all part of my odyssey along this whole road," he says of coming to Duke and then staying involved. "You've got to show up. You can't be saying, 'I'm not getting served.' Stepping up is part of it, and stepping up comes after you show up."
Alston first showed up soon after graduation as a volunteer for the Duke University Black Alumni Connection and his regional Alumni Admissions Advisory Committee. His dedication brought him to the attention of DAA board members, and seven years ago, he was asked to join that body. The following year, he became a committee chair and then was selected for the board's executive committee. This year, in a culmination of this career of service, he assumes the presidency of the group, and makes history in the process.
"It's not lost on me that I'm the first black person to have this job," Alston says. "And it can't just be more of the same. There is going to be some result, and there are a couple of ways to look at that. If there's nothing different, that's both good and bad: It's good because it means maybe we were headed the right way before, but it's bad because, if we weren't headed the right way, then there was a chance to do something different and I blew it. That's the pressure I feel."
Alston says he believes the DAA is headed the right way as it continues to follow its strategic plan--a plan he helped draft with an eye toward bringing new constituencies to the organization and providing more services to more alumni. "We took great pains to add into it all the facets that would make it vibrant and productive," he says, "and that included everything from how to make the DAA bigger and better, how to involve more constituencies, how to plug in minorities, how to make sure that everything we do enhances the experience for everyone. Now we've just got to keep on course."
Participating in the strategic planning process was one way to help the DAA address concerns about inclusiveness and the Duke community, he says. "You see on campus that one of the main issues is student life, and student life is really about how you make everybody feel like they're a part of the campus, at its very core. That's an issue we had at Duke more than twenty years ago. Now you want everyone to come to Main West and feel like it's their campus."
One of the problems Alston sees is that some minority students aren't comfortable staking a claim on West, and so continue to feel marginalized. "At some point, you've got to say, 'it's mine, too.' There are equal parts to that. There's the solution of 'Let's make everybody feel welcome,' but you've got to make yourself feel welcome, too. You're spending $30,000 a year to be there, so step up!
"Those issues remain and, therefore, it's important to see how we can bridge them. Part of that is unreachable as alumni: 'I'm never going to live on campus again, I'm never going to be part of that dynamic, and, quite frankly, because I'm older, I'm not sure I'm always going to understand that.' But we want to have an eye on that, try to understand that, and do what we can."
Reaching out to students on campus and to young alumni is a major goal of the strategic plan, and Alston says continuing to find ways to connect with as many on-campus constituencies as possible will be key for DAA success. "I've already had some conversations with the new DSG president, Joshua Jean-Baptiste, who not only is a minority but is a fraternity brother of mine. Because of those ties we have, we can have an even tighter connection," he says.
He says he recognizes that some of the connections between alumni and students are "going to be predicated on old folks and young folks and how they mix. Hopefully, we can break down those barriers."
Alston says his term as president is an opportunity to help shape Duke's future, particularly as a new member of the university's board of trustees. "The trustees are all about direction," he says. "Wherever this school goes is a direct result of what the trustees do. That's not lost on me either. I'm looking forward to it."
Alston and his wife, Sharon, have three children--Zahava, Jordan, and Evan--and live in Rochester, New York, where he is a principal research scientist at the Battelle Memorial Institute.