Stars Shine Bright at Black Excellence Gala

Students from the National Society of Black Engineers and the Black Honors Society

On Dec. 8, 2023, students took a well-deserved break from final projects and studying for final exams to celebrate the successes of peers and role models at the second annual Syracuse University Black Excellence Gala. The event, held at the Goldstein Student Center, was co-sponsored by the Black Honors Society and National Society of Black Engineers to celebrate and recognize the achievements of Black students attending Syracuse University.

“Being in a predominantly white institution, it is not always easy for students of color to discover spaces where they have a chance to shine,” says Ryan Nkongnyu ’25, an Our Time Has Come (OTHC) Scholar and event coordinator for the Black Honors Society who served as emcee of the gala. “This event gives students of color the opportunity to make connections, to be recognized and to celebrate themselves. It highlights the importance of representation and elevates our student experience.”

The theme for the gala was “A Night Under the Stars,” with attendees in black and white formal dress. “We rolled out the red carpet as if we were celebrating a night in Hollywood,” says Nkongnyu, who is also vice president of the Black Student Union. “Our theme was chosen to reflect the idea that while we admire the stars of Hollywood, we must also celebrate the stars and icons in the making right next to us.” 

The Black Excellence Gala was conceived in 2022 by Faith Akoachere ’24, a co-founder of the Black Honors Society, as a way to celebrate students of color during their college journey, not just at graduation. After collaborating with the National Society of Black Engineers, and with support from Maria J. Lopez ’05, G’12, assistant director of scholarship programs in the Office of Multicultural Advancement, the first Black Excellence Gala was held that December.   

As in its inaugural year, the 2023 gala included a dessert reception, student performances, recognition to students for academic achievement and a keynote address. This year’s speaker was Racheida Lewis, assistant professor of engineering education at the University of Georgia, who conducts research on the recruitment and retention of engineering students and ways to make engineering more inclusive and accessible to underrepresented students.  Lewis shared her own academic journey and provided insight to students about achieving success as students of color.

In the second year of the gala, organizers sought to increase the connection between Syracuse students and the community. All ticket proceeds benefitted the Northside Learning Center, a community organization that supports immigrant families and refugee youth in Syracuse. Awards were created to honor students in the areas of community service, leadership and scholarship in tribute of alumni and staff who exemplify those values. The Kevin Richardson Community Service Award was presented to Jamea Candy Johnson ’27, Camille Johnson ’25 and Kayla Turner ’24. The Savalle Sims Leadership Award was given to Zikora Nnam ’24 (OTHC Scholar), Aldrick Cade ’23 (OTHC Scholar), Aminata Sylla ’24 (OTHC Scholar) and Ibraheem Ayinde ’26, and the Special Scholarship Award was received by Cheryl Olanga ’25 and Hawa Omar ’23.

Richardson, who received an honorary undergraduate degree from Syracuse University in 2020, is best known as a member of the Exonerated Five, and has turned the injustices of wrongful conviction and incarceration to activism with organizations such as the Innocence Project. Sims, a 1992 Syracuse graduate, is executive vice president and general counsel of Warner Brothers Discovery.

Awards were also presented to organizations. The Black Reign Step Team, which performed at the event, was voted Student Organization of the Year. The Kappa Lambda chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. was named Greek Organization of the Year and Underground Cuts was honored as Student Business of the Year.

Putting the spotlight on student success had just the impact that organizers hoped for. “Seeing so many high achieving students in one space and everyone in their best looks truly brought me joy,” says Gabrielle Pinkney ’24, an OTHC Leader and Black Honors Society co-founder who has helped plan the gala both years. “This event is a wonderful opportunity for fellowship and celebration of our accomplishments as students. 

Akoachere believes the gala has become an important community-building celebration. “It allows students to see the achievements of peers who often feel hidden, to be motivated to achieve the same opportunities and just feel pride for how students of color have managed to succeed,” she says.