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Personal Development
January 9, 2024

SPELMAN’S BLACK GIRL MAGIC

Written by:

ROMELDIA SALTER: Chicago public school PreK-8 principal; Class ’90

CAMRYN SALTER: Sociology; Class ’22

CORINNE SALTER: Economics; Class ’25

ALISON GRAVES-CALHOUN: Biomedical Engineer, Principal Clinical Specialist; Class ’90

AMAIA CALHOUN: Economics; Class ’23

KIM TAYLOR-SMITH: Director, Employee and Community Engagement, AbbVie; Class ’90

BRADLEIGH SMITH: Economics; Class ’22

KAREN ADAMS HORTON: Vice President and Head of Brand Initiatives at the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association; Class ’90

SAHARA HORTON: Economics; Class ’24

MONICA PURDY: Presiding Judge of the 95th Judicial District Court in Dallas County, Texas; Class ’89

ZOE PURDY: Sociology; Class ’25

DR. CARMEN WOODS HOLLOWELL: Managing Partner of the Woods Women’s Group in Park City, Illinois, and Vice Chief of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Northwestern Medicine North Region, and Head of Multispecialty Physician Quality; Class ’90

Those of us who have attended this iconic school for dynamic Black women—whose notable alumnae include activist Marian Wright Edelman, gubernatorial candidate and voting rights leader Stacey Abrams, CEO Rosalind Brewer, financier Colleen J. Taylor and actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson—share a unique bond.

This bond is even more special when it is shared between mother and daughter, which made it memorable for me to talk to a group of accomplished alumnae and their daughters (also current Spelman students). Our conversation has been edited for length.
Carmen Woods Hollowell: You all are leaders in your respective fields, dynamic women who paved the way for those around you, with phenomenal daughters who are on the path to do the same. What was your first impression of Spelman?

Romeldia Salter: I came in April of ’86 when they had seniors come. My aunt attended Spelman, so I was aware how special it was. I thought, “This is going to be the greatest slumber party ever.” I loved it.

Camryn Salter: I grew up on Spelman’s campus… so to me, Spelman was just a mecca, where my mom got her education and all of her friends who also caught my eye…This is a safe space for me. I felt comfortable there.

Corinne Salter: The sisterhood [was my] first impression of Spelman, which I think everyone takes away from their interactions there. I was raised by family who had wonderful experiences.

Amaia Calhoun: Spelman was a place that my mom and her friends loved. I was slightly worried: would it be the same for me? So when I made my decision, I was taking a leap of faith and knew it would work out… and it certainly has. I’m happy that I made that decision.

Bradleigh Smith: When I went to visit for Spelbound, it was great to be around like-minded women all of the time… I knew I could find my place… and hopefully be like them one day.

Sahara Horton: It was similar for me. My mom shared her experiences and I wasn’t sure that it was going to be the same but I went to visit for homecoming. That’s when my perspective changed. I enjoyed the sisterhood and meeting everyone, I could see myself at Spelman after that.

Zoe Purdy: My experience is similar to Sahara’s and Amaia’s. I had been steered towards Spelman from a young age. My mom and all of her friends went there, so it was like, “This is the best place in the world.” I got to visit…Being there for myself made a great impression, allowing me to see myself there and really want to go there.

Monica Purdy: Spelman almost didn’t happen for me. I thought that I was on my way to the University of Miami since I grew up in Florida. My mother arranged for me to spend the weekend [at Spelman]. I was matched up with [a] freshman to experience Spelman. That really changed my perspective. I hadn’t been in an environment with a lot of Black women that were all beautiful, smart in their own right and had life figured out. That was influential and turned the tide for me.

Kim Taylor-Smith: During a visit I saw through my mother’s eyes… a safe place where young Black talented women thrive, it was a one-of-a-kind experience for my mom, who did not have the opportunity to go to a four-year college.

Alison Graves-Calhoun: I was not convinced that Spelman was the place for me. My father made a deal with me. He said “OK, just go for the first semester and if you hate it, you can transfer. But if you love it, which I think you will, then you’ll stay there.” Like Amaia, I took a leap of faith. And that’s exactly what happened in that first week, and the rest is history.

Karen Adams Horton: My experience was a little different… I went to UC San Diego and hated it. I was able to convince my parents to let me go to Spelman and they did. Most of my credits didn’t transfer, so I started as a freshman. Spelman was the best experience of my life.

Carmen: My Uncle Earl Shaw Jr. went to Morehouse (’82). Visiting him piqued my interest in Spelman. Senior year, during homecoming, I experienced the… Black Girl Magic… Being surrounded by the best and brightest America had to offer who looked like me was earthshattering!

Carmen: What might people be surprised to learn about Spelman?

Romeldia: The diversity. Everyone assumes that because we are an HBCU, we’re all the same, that we’re cut from the same cloth. They stereotype us but we are the most diverse group of Black women ever in one space. Everyone finds their tribe. It’s a beautiful thing.

Monica: I would echo the diversity, not only in terms of being from different countries but also I think people have a certain impression of Spelman: everyone comes from a private school background; your parents are well-to-do. The socioeconomic status [of the students] is remarkably varied. People find their place no matter where you come from. It’s so empowering.

Zoe: It’s not the textbook read of what you think an HBCU is, or what you think going to an all-girls institution is like. Everyone brings something different to the table and you can’t put anyone in any one box to check off.

Corinne: There’s an impression that people are partying all of the time. We’re a top-tier college. People are driven, focused and smart.

Carmen: What was the best class you took at Spelman and why?

Sahara: My freshman year we took African Diaspora in the World. We learned history from a world perspective. Traditionally, only a Eurocentric view is presented in school. Learning from a Black lens in discussion-based class, people would relate their own experiences to what we learned and I really liked it a lot.

Bradleigh: I’m an Econ major, but since we’re a liberal arts college we have to take a science. I value Spelman has us taking classes outside of our major. The Astronomy class ended up being my favorite class. It helped me grow as a person.

Camryn: Medical Anthropology. I took it the year before COVID-19. Learning about systematic medical racism and how that’s evolved over the generations was just eye-opening.

Amaia: I have a similar experience. I’m also an Econ major and I took an Intro to Comparative Women’s Studies. It was centered on Black women and the assignments were engaging. This creativity challenged me and engaged me… to be available for people who look like us to build wealth and be successful.

Alison: I was a dual-degree Engineering and Mathematics major. All of my classes were math and science… My freshman year we were required to take a Philosophy class; what was so great was that it was discussion-based. It opened my eyes to my classmates and how brilliant they were in the type of thinking they were doing. This is what Spelman is… it’s focused on teaching the students to be problem solvers and teaching us how to think.

Carmen: Funny. I hadn’t thought about that class with you in years. One lifechanging conversation I remember centered around the fact that every question does not deserve an answer. Just because someone asks something of you, you don’t have to feel compelled to answer it. As women, especially Black women, this strikes the core of a patriarchal power structure.

Carmen: What causes are you passionate about and how did Spelman influence that?

Monica: I’ve always been drawn to young people, volunteering and helping them understand their strength in elections. Prior to heading off to college, I worked with my Jack and Jill chapter to make sure that the kids know, “When you’re heading off to college, make sure that you request your absentee ballot.” I want them to understand there is power at that ballot box.

Karen: I am focused on children and girls in particular. I work for TIAA, a Fortune 100 company, and one of the things I have focused on is championing diversity and recruiting Black people. More specifically, Black women from Spelman. We’re going to do about 250 internships this summer focused on hiring Black and brown people.

Alison: One area of focus, for obvious reasons, is HBCU education and making that possible for others. Spelman is at the top of that list. I also have to say Morehouse, because I live in a house with both representation from Spelman and Morehouse [my husband]. We support other schools like Tennessee State University where a lot of my family members went. All of the organizations that I am involved in [The Links, Inc., Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.] are focused on developing the next generation of leaders.

Carmen: That’s wonderful. We know that diversity and representation matters. All of us have been in a room where we’re the only one. It’s exhausting… People need opportunity. It’s about making a way for others to have those same opportunities.

Carmen: What is a Spelman Sister?

Sahara: Friends that share a lot of the same experiences. We can relate to each other on a different level.

Zoe: They are the people who make you feel welcome and you can be your true self [with]. Your authentic self. The best version of yourself when you are around them.

Karen: Women who have a shared experience that is like no other which truly and unequivocally bonds you for life.

Monica: A Spelman sister genuinely wants you to succeed, however success looks for you. They are happy for you, supportive of you. They show up, they give you advice.

Carmen: What’s your definition of success?

Bradleigh: Being happy while uplifting others.

Sahara: Being happy and making sure that I can do the best in whatever field I choose to go into, while liking what I’m doing.

Monica: I think I’ve learned to shy away from the word success and focus on those things that allow you to flourish and thrive. When you take your mind off of success and what you think it looks like and focus on the activities that allow you to flourish and thrive in life you’re on the right track.

Romeldia: Success is giving people access. Being in a position to help others. Like Monica said, it’s not about a certain destination, but if you’re able to help others, then you’ve achieved success.

Amaia: Success is good health and happiness. Following my passion and having a tangible impact.

Zoe: Success for me is just being at a point where I’m truly happy about what I’m doing. Passionate about what kind of life I’m living and the best version of my life.

Karen: To me, it’s being in a position to help others. Living the life you want to lead, whatever that is.

Camryn: Success is when you can just sit back and say you’ve done your best and you gave everything you got.

Corinne: Success is that lasting positive legacy and impact on other people. So that you’re not the only one that’s successful… But people after you and around you are too.

Alison: I’m glad you asked that question because this is something that Spelman has taught us. We define what success is. So my success may be different than yours. For me, it’s being in a career or a workplace where I am doing something I’m passionate about and making an impact on others’ lives on a daily basis.

Carmen: What have you learned about how you turn a no into a yes?

Alison: It really starts from the foundation. So, if you have a foundation of faith prior to going into an interview, you pray that if this is for me, then it will come to fruition and if it does not, then this was not my opportunity. There’s something else for me and I have to be patient for that to turn out. So the answer is not now but it’s coming.

Romeldia: I would say that, as a teacher, this is a journey and we are here to do the best, and be the best we possibly can. So that no just means continue on the journey. Learn to do and learn how to be the best you can be. Sometimes the no’s are necessary. They help us go back and redefine the work we need to do to get to the yes and where it should come from.

Karen: I would say that it goes back to having confidence, so that if there is a no, understand what you can learn from that. Then go for it and try it again. Do your homework, data research, so that you have the support, the facts to back up that information. This can easily turn a no into a yes.

Kim: I help my audience see the value in the yes in a way that is compelling to them from a bottom-line/personal perspective. I try to make my possibilities real.

Monica: It took me a long time to learn that I should not be afraid to fail. Every time I didn’t get that yes—and I’ve received many no’s along the way—I have emerged bigger, better and brighter. Something that I often tell my children is, “Look, I’m going to let you feel bad for one day, but in the morning, it’s a new day and we’re going to emerge with the plan.” A failure makes you resilient.

Carmen: For me, I’m relentless. If the doors close, I’m going to find a window. If the windows are closed, I’m going to find a vent. Failure is not the end; it’s just, “OK, well, it didn’t work out that time. I’m going to come back another way.”

Carmen: Finish the sentence for me. Spelman is…

Amaia: Special.

Sahara: Sisterhood.

Zoe: A second home.

Corinne: Limitless.

Camryn: All of us.

Bradleigh: Inspiring.

Romeldia: The gift that keeps on giving.

Alison: The best decision I ever made.

Kim: A sustaining legacy.

Monica: Where Black girls go to become.

Karen: The best confidence builder ever.

Carmen: I think we can agree Spelman opened up a world of possibilities for all of us.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.