While fans were gathered in the Mercedes Benz Superdome and on their couches watching the New Orleans Saints suffer a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Dillard alumnus and lifelong Saints fan, C.J. Bland ‘86, MBA was winning over the crowd in Lawless Memorial Chapel while delivering a heartfelt keynote address during Founders’ Day Convocation.
For the first time since 2019, graduating seniors, faculty and staff, cabinet members, board trustees, alumni, city council members, family and friends gathered in the newly renovated chapel to observe Founders’ Day – a time to look back in awe at how far the University has come and a time to look ahead to the dreams yet to be realized.
As I took my seat on the wooden pews in the chapel and watched the sun pierce through the window panes, I heard the soothing sound of Dillard University’s Choir singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I couldn’t help but reminisce about wearing my black cap and gown during Founders’ Day
Convocation in 2015 and hearing the same song. Although the people singing the song were different, the melody and harmony sounded the same. I remembered sitting with my classmates with our eyes fixated on the podium and hanging on to every profound word that came from the speaker’s mouth, just like the class of 2023. The only difference was that I was now viewing Founders’ Day Convocation from the lens of an alumna and current employee, and appreciating Dillard for providing a foundation for fond memories and legacies.
The buildings that students live in, the classes where they study and even the places that they pray are named for the founders who have triumphed over adversity, weathered the storms and built this great institution. Because of its rich history and mission, Dillard has cultivated an environment where students are able to become their best selves to make the world a better place, and Bland is a product of that environment.
During his keynote address, Bland spoke openly about the trials and tribulations he experienced. Determined to overcome poverty and better his and his family’s lives, Bland secured a full academic scholarship to attend Dillard, a year and a half after his older brother was murdered during a hate crime. While working long hours at McDonald’s to make ends meet, Bland slacked off in academics and lost his scholarship. Tragedy struck his family again after he graduated from Dillard. The day he graduated from Southern University with his engineering degree, he received the news that his four-year-old niece fell to her death. Bland opened up his address with the tragedies he experienced to encourage the crowd to never give up. “During the course of our lives we will experience highs and lows. Regardless of what you’re going through, things will change,” Bland said.
Just like Dillard’s founders, Bland triumphed over adversity and built a successful business with Minority Professional Network, Inc. (MPN), where he continues to serve underrepresented professionals. Under Bland’s savvy and visionary leadership, MPN has reached millions of ethnically diverse job seekers, site users, consumers, subscribers and social media contacts based in 50 plus countries.
During convocation, Bland made a call to action to alumni in support of Dillard for more scholarships, internships, mentorship and job opportunities for students and recent grads, in addition to securing more funding for faculty research as well as infrastructure.
According to interim provost and senior vice president of Academic Affairs, Mablene Krueger, Founders’ Day exemplifies the culture of Dillard and HBCUs. “I knew that it would be emotional being in the chapel. Just watching the students and how they responded to every speaker, the choir and the theater group, and how they stayed connected with them every minute, let me know that we all want the same things. It makes me hopeful about the future,” said Krueger.
Bland culminated his visit to Dillard on Monday, with a professional development workshop on DEI, recruiting and retention that was open to all students, faculty and staff.