The Colgate Scene
November 2002

A man of character
For Desmond Alexander, building relationships is a key to leadership

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

When Tim Mansfield first met Desmond Alexander '03, he was on stage, acting out a personal experience in front of the entire first-year class as part of a diversity workshop during orientation.

"I was impressed with his stage presence and how he was able to deliver a sensitive message to that many people," said Mansfield, associate director of residential life, who shared his observation with the student. "Des said, `That's how I reach people. I'm better, especially about issues like race, coming across positively in things that I care about.'"

That's exactly what Alexander, known to many as "Des," does well. Spoken of as highly involved and dedicated, with a great sense of humor, the senior has distinguished himself as a positive force on campus.

"If I was some all-powerful being," said Alexander, "I would erase all negative stereotypes of those of us who don't fit in the `norm,' like those of us who are students of color, those of us who are gay, those of us who are hippies."

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Alexander, a double major in computer science and education, first arrived at Colgate through the Office of Undergraduate Studies' pre-first-year summer academic transition program (OUS).

"He's very hardworking, very focused," said Harvey Sindima, a philosophy and religion professor who was one of Alexander's OUS instructors and is now his longtime mentor and friend. "He did very well. He was determined to make the most of his time here, and he has."

Although Alexander comes across as laid back and quiet, OUS Counselor Sarah Ishmail noted that from the start he clearly "portrayed that sense of, `yeah, I'm going to do this. I'm going to be a leader,'"

Ishmail said that last summer, as head dorm resident for OUS, "Des was really helpful. It's like he's got eyes in the back of his head. He knew every student's name within the first couple of days, and the workers' as well. If somebody didn't feel well, he could just tell, and he would say, `we're going to get it done, because we're a team here.'"

Campus leader
Helping the Brothers organization be an effective and visible proponent for change on campus has been a key priority for Alexander since his first year. As a rising junior, he was elected chief, and this year he's second lieutenant. Their mission, he said, "is to educate the campus about issues that men of color face -- but we're open to all males and we also provide a support base for anybody who has issues they want to talk about." Brothers also organizes events and participates in community service activities. Highlights for Alexander have been bringing speakers such as Al Sharpton and Spike Lee to campus, and their annual Charity Week, which benefits the Dunbar Center, a youth development organization in Syracuse.

The advisor to Brothers, sociology professor Mark Edwards, said that Alexander has become influential among his peers. "He's truly here to learn, and if he's not sure about something, he's going to look for the people who can help him get a better understanding, and then he thinks about it and proceeds from there. The way he has been has really rubbed off on some of the other students."

Another major priority is the African American Student Alliance, of which he's president this year. He's also a member of Konosioni; plays intramural football; and follows his interest in hip-hop and R&B music as director of WRCU's Nyte Flyte, with a radio show, "The Split Level," with Antwaun Dixon '03 and as senior advisor to We Funk, a hip-hop programming group.

Each Tuesday, Alexander participates in OUS's program for tutoring children at the Dunbar Center, where Ishmail remarked that "there are five kids on him from the time we walk through the door to the time we leave. He's a mentor for them, a big brother."

"Looking at some of those kids who have no guidance," Alexander said, "I didn't have the best financial situation, but I had a strong parental foundation. I'm giving back and that's what I'm most proud of."

And that's not all. Alexander was a resident advisor for two years, and this year he's head resident of the four-building Bryan Complex. "I thought it would help me build good relationships, and it was something I was really interested in. I like working with people and helping people out."

He finds the responsibility gratifying because "people confide in and can trust me and know that I'm there for them." Although with the job come the challenges of rules enforcement, Alexander says, "I'm more about establishing some type of relationship. Sometimes residents will push you to the extent where you have to be the authoritarian, but that's actually the worst part of the job."

In terms of de-escalating confrontational situations, Mansfield, who is Alexander's supervisor, noted: "That's where Des shines. He'll engage with somebody -- it might be an intoxicated student, or a fight -- but he's able to put the fire out, come across in a jovial way, put things into perspective and say, `we'll listen.' That's where he commands respect, and I think those buildings are in good hands."

Opening his eyes
Alexander has found ways to weave his personal interests into his academic work; he wrote a substantive paper on the history of race relations at Colgate for his History of American Higher Education class. He pored over back issues of campus publications such as The Maroon and the Alumni News from the late '50s and '60s, among other sources, to learn about the origins of the ALANA Cultural Center, the formation of student groups such as the Association of Black Collegians and discrimination in the fraternity system.

"It was wonderful to see his work with the newspaper sources and getting into the primary research," said Amy Schutt, assistant professor of educational studies, who taught the course.

He became deeply engaged in the research because "it ties in with a lot of the organizations that I work with." Alexander also wanted to know how things might have changed at Colgate over time.

"I found that things really aren't that different," he said. "Colgate's gotten a little better, but in reality, the same things they were fighting for, which were more students of color, more faculty of color, things of that nature, we still want today."

Alexander says that despite a number of negative race-related events that have occurred on campus during his time here, his Colgate experience has been "overwhelmingly positive, because I think those things have made me try to make things better, and use them as motivation to be stronger. The people I've met, relationships I've established, the things I've gotten involved in, they've made Colgate a better place for me to be."

Colgate has also opened his eyes in new ways. "I met a girl my first year when I went to Skin Deep," he said, describing that in one exercise at the annual diversity workshop, the participants were asked to break up into racial or ethnic groups. "A Jewish group broke out. I had never fathomed white people being different. I just kind of lumped them all in one group. She's a head resident, so we've had quite a few conversations about it, and I thanked her for doing that for me."

Whether for his academics or activities, Alexander said, "My motivation comes from the dedication, hard work and commitment that those before me showed. Without the people [sitting in] in '68-'69 we wouldn't have the things we have, like the ALANA Cultural Center. Without the guidance of the seniors when I was a freshman, or OUS helping me get through the hard times, I wouldn't be thriving like I am right now. My motivation is to continue that legacy and instill it in the people who come after me so that hopefully they can make our names known and make Colgate a better place."

Alexander is considering options for his future, including working in sports television or perhaps attending graduate school in education. "I would like to be able to work with young males of color or who are in impoverished environments who I can relate to and who don't see any hope, when there's a world of opportunity. Sometimes you just don't see it."

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