James Alford, ’16, M.S.Ed. ’17, Earns Outstanding Young Alumnus Award
By Lia Kizilbash Gillet
James Alford, '16, M.S.Ed. '17, exemplifies the transformative power of mentorship and community – emphasizing the importance of stepping outside one's comfort zone to achieve growth.
As a College of Business cohort advisor at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), Alford advises and mentors over 400 students, helping them identify and utilize programs and campus resources to enhance their academic journey and engagement.
His key message to students is at the foundation of his own student experience.
"It may be hard," said Alford, "but we only grow when we are uncomfortable."
Enrolled as a political science major at NIU in 2010 and the first in his family to attend college, Alford had no idea how much his life would be positively impacted by his education and campus community.
With his deep connection to NIU, serving as inspiration to guide future generations, Alford is receiving this year's NIU Alumni Association Outstanding Young Alumnus Award.
While at Northern, Alford faced the uncomfortable challenge of academic probation – a hurdle that can often derail a student. Crediting the dynamic coursework of BKST 202, which studies issues facing African-American students, coupled with the exceptional individuals involved with the Center for Black Studies, Alford was able to shift his trajectory, grow as a leader and develop as a student.
"I would not be the leader, man or professional without the love and support from the staff at the Center for Black Studies. Derrick Smith, Regina Curry, Don Bramlett, Dr. LaVerne Gyant and Dr. Joy Coates played an instrumental part in my development; I cannot thank them enough," he said.
Alford notes that the Center for Black Studies and TRIO offices, offering student support services and coaching to first-generation, low-income or disabled students, were like second homes to him. Working at the Center for Black Studies, he mentored students and helped them to find their place in the college community. The offices were more than just physical spaces; they were his personal and intellectual growth hubs.
"I always tell people I had one of the best undergrad experiences in the world," Alford said. "Being at NIU, I got to do so many things some students could only dream of. I studied leadership, service and culture in Beijing, China. I fulfilled my dreams and ran for office on campus, and I managed to win positions on Hall Council, Student Association, Campus Activities Board and the Black Student Union."
As an involved student leader, Alford was committed to developing a sense of community for his peers and worked to bring people together to make the campus a better place.
A TRIO advisor, Genesis White Rue, '08, M.S.Ed. '15, opened Alford’s eyes to the possibility of attending graduate school. As a graduate student, Alford was a graduate assistant on campus, acting as a committee chair for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Service Week Committee. With the help of one of his mentors — fellow alumnus Dr. Shelby T. Wyatt, '94, Ed.D. '00 — he was able to do research and present at the 5th National White House and Reach Higher Convening during President Obama’s administration.
These formative experiences ignited his passion for higher education and for a career focused on advising, mentoring and student success. Before his role at UIC, Alford was an academic advisor in the School of Media Arts at Columbia College Chicago and, prior to that, was a student success specialist in the TRIO program at Saint Xavier University. Alford has previously worked in the Office of Student Academic Success which is now housed in the College of Education.
Outside of advising, Alford's career includes a significant teaching component. As an instructor of seminar courses for first-year students, in addition to a diversity dialogue course, Alford fosters an inclusive environment where students can engage in discussions and feel a sense of belonging. He recognizes the significance of being a Black male role model and is committed to helping students find pathways to participate on campus.
Following his own steadfast advice, Alford is still heavily involved in serving the communities that played an influential role in his growth. He continues to support TRIO as their financial chairperson, and legislative and education co-chairperson. He also plans events for TRIO alumni across the region. Alford is equally involved on the UIC campus, serving as the academic advisor and on the programming committee for the Black Emerging Leaders Academy and serving as co-chair for the Advisory Committee for Black Student Access, working on projects to recruit and retain Black students on campus. He is a member of the Metropolitan Board of the Chicago Urban League, formerly serving as the service co-chair and treasurer.
In addition to mentoring through his chosen career, Alford helps the next generation of Huskies obtain a life-changing college experience like his own. As a dedicated NIU volunteer, he empowers students to pursue their dreams by telling his own story. He has worked with prospective students and shared his college experiences on campus panels. Affiliated with the Black Alumni Council and the NIU Greek Alumni Council, Alford also serves as chair of the Constitution Bylaws Committee.
Alford stands as a reminder that success is not just about personal achievement but about lifting others as well.