“Today as I was leaving for lunch I started to get emotional about this experience,” says Wright, former associate dean for academic achievement. “I was standing at the elevator and I couldn’t feel my legs. I had to hold myself steady to continue to stand up.”
It’s June 25, 2015. The next day will be his last on staff. It will be the end of a professional career that spanned 45 years, 38 of those at Bloomsburg University working with the Act 101/Equal Opportunity Program, for which he served as director from 1996 through 2012. The program provides academic advising, tutoring, mentorship and a precollege summer program to students who are at a financial, cultural, social or educational disadvantage.
Those who know him well describe Wright as a champion for diversity and social justice; a tireless administrator who without fail goes the extra mile — and beyond — for students.
“In 38 years, I’ve only missed four graduations,” Wright says. “It’s important for me to be there because I know what the students have gone through to get to that point.
“People want to know how I do this. It’s because I’m motivated. It’s exciting work because I see the difference in students when they get it — what they need to do to be successful.”
“He demanded more from me — he helped me work harder than I thought I needed to.”
“I came as a 17 year-old. Now I’m in my 40s and Dr. Wright is still a mentor to me.”
“Dr. Wright became like a father figure. There’s nothing I do on a daily basis that I don’t owe him for.”
Ask former Act 101 students about Wright, and they talk about the deep level of support he provided and how he always demanded their best despite the multiple barriers to success they often faced. For some, he became part of their extended families, attending weddings and graduation parties, and sometimes advising them about wrenching personal crises.
Their recollections swirl around one fundamental truth summed up by Act 101 alumnus Wayne Whitaker Sr. ’79, assistant director of diversity and retention at BU: “He is dedicated to students. That’s his heart.”
That dedication began in the summer of 1975. Wright was an assistant football coach at the University of Toledo when his close friend, Jesse Bryan, encouraged him to use his vacation time to work as a guidance counselor for the Act 101 summer program. Bryan was BU’s first full-time director of Act 101.
Wright says he fell in love with the program and its students, and his path was set.
It wasn’t an easy transition, however. He remembers feeling taken aback when he arrived at Bloomsburg. “I said, ‘There are no black people’,” he recalls. “The environment was not very welcoming.”
Hired as the Act 101 assistant director in 1977, he moved to Bloomsburg and, a year later, married his wife, Judy, who had trouble getting a job as a school teacher despite her strong qualifications. And the couple had to file several grievances against a landlord who tried repeatedly to evict them.
Wright was undeterred, but clearly there was a lot of work to be done. “Jesse Bryan and I realized that we needed to create a community that embraced and supported differences,” he says.
Part of that work involved helping students from different backgrounds engage with one another. The fact that Act 101 includes both whites and students of color has helped foster a multicultural environment.
He also has worked hard to counter the stigma that Act 101 students are less deserving of their spot at Bloomsburg. “Why bring these students to Bloomsburg when you know they can’t make it?” Wright says, quoting the attitude of some staff and faculty. “But that’s not true. Our retention and graduation rates keep going up.”
Wright remembers six-year graduation rates for underrepresented minorities as low as 33 percent. For the 2008 freshmen cohort, that figure was 51.1 percent.
Improving retention and graduation rates has meant a lot of work with students and at the institutional level.
“Not all students are the same. You have to meet them where they are in terms of readiness for college,” Wright explains. “At the same time, we have cracks that students fall through and are never heard from again. What can we do as an institution to help them?”
Wright also has made it a point to sit on numerous committees and get involved in the community. A very short list of those activities includes the University-Community Task Force on Racial Equity, the University Committee for Protected Class Issues and the Bloomsburg Rotary Club.
“The thing about people in my position is that we have to take on more than just doing our job,” Wright says. “If you’re really committed to supporting students, you end up on all the committees you can.”
Irvin Wright will be sorely missed.
“I used to go to Dr. Wright’s office and talk about personal stuff going on with me,” says Mara Carpenter ‘98. “He was one of the first people I thought of to invite to my wedding. Now, I’m a nurse anesthetist and an equal opportunity officer in the U.S. Army. What better way to honor where I came from?”
“He’s a civil rights trailblazer,” says Act 101 alumna Madelyn Rodriguez ’95/’98M, director of multicultural affairs at Bloomsburg. “He will always be the voice of social justice at Bloomsburg.”
But while he’s no longer on staff, that voice is hardly going silent.
“I’m not planning to do anything after I retire,” he says with a laugh. “Basically, I’ll be trying to figure out what to do with the next chapter of my life.”
It’s highly likely that a big part of that next chapter will involve Bloomsburg: He has already filled out the necessary background clearance forms so he can start volunteering.
Clearly, he won’t be going far. •
Willie Colón is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.