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Gracelyn McDermott Shares Her Story in Celebration of Black History Month

Nicole Patterson

Gracelyn McDermott and classmates

Gracelyn McDermott and classmates at a Mount reunion several years ago

In celebration of Black History Month, the Center for Student Diversity hosted a question-and-answer session with the Mount’s Chair of the Board of Trustees Gracelyn A. McDermott,C’93. Students, faculty, administrators and friends gathered in Knott Auditorium and on Zoom to hear sophomore Asia Yates interview McDermott about the alumna’s professional achievements, experience as a first-generation African American woman, confidence in her faith, hope for the future and pride in becoming a citizen of the United States.

gracelyn-mcdermott_131014-8487.jpg“Mr. Leon Dixon came up with the idea and invited Mrs. McDermott to participate in this event,” said Assistant Director of the Center for Student Diversity Areli Aguilar-Hill. “We both agreed that as the first African American woman in such an important position at the Mount, students would benefit tremendously from hearing her story.”

Assistant Dean and Director of the Center for Student Diversity Leon Dixon welcomed the group and spoke about the importance of understanding other cultures and the plight of marginalized and oppressed individuals—discussing the power of radical hospitality and Christ’s message and mission of unity.

“I want tonight to be a springboard to conversations that we all should have with one another—conversations about bringing people together, conversations about what the future looks like,” he added before President Timothy E. Trainor, Ph.D. introduced McDermott.

McDermott majored in international studies and Spanish at the Mount before she earned an MBA from Johns Hopkins University. She has a long list of professional achievements in sales, operations, and information technology leadership in the healthcare environment and is currently vice president for sales, marketing and business development within the mid-Atlantic division of Kaiser Permanente, a healthcare company. 

“There’s nobody more committed to the success of the students than she is,” Trainor said. “She is the second woman and first African American to serve as chair of the Mount’s Board of Trustees, and she gives generously of her time and talent to the university, including participation in the inaugural alumni of color panel dinner in 2019 and leading the webinar for alumni on healthcare.”

Yates, a student-athlete and ROTC member, began her interview with McDermott by saying: “This is truly inspirational to be able to interview you. You’re not only someone that I look up to for the position that you have, but for the path you’ve taken. You’re an inspiration to those of us who are also young African American women—and you show us exactly the great lengths that we can go.”

Starting with a smile and joke, McDermott asserted she often begins speaking engagements while walking onstage to Alicia Keys’ song “Girl on Fire.” She shared her experience that in the early 1990s the Mount’s campus was about 10% minority students. “By minorities, that wasn’t just African American. It was also Asian, Indian. Back then when we talked about diversity, it was more international,” she explained. At that time, the Mount didn’t have an African American or Black student union, rather the Organization for Students for Cultural Awareness (OSCA) which any student, and seminarian, could join.

After applying to and being accepted at three Maryland colleges, McDermott, a first-generation student, said the Mount stood out. “I got scholarships to all three of them, but out of the three, my mother only got a call from one of them—and that was Mount St. Mary’s.” The invitation to come visit and the personal connection made the difference.

Yates asked McDermott to talk about her personal experiences during her time at the Mount.

“Coming to the Mount, in terms of my attitude and thought process, it’s also important for me to share with you that for at least two-and-a-half years at the Mount, I was not an African American student; I was a Caribbean or Afro-Caribbean student,” she explained. “I actually just celebrated my anniversary a few days ago. On February 14, 1992, I became a full-fledged citizen of the United States.”

Stating that she was used to being a minority by the time she started college, McDermott shared instances of racism and ignorance when students asked her what sport she played and why she was at the Mount. “I’m here for the same exact reason you are: to get an education,” she would respond. “Back then, if you were an African American or Black student or minority student, you were expected to play a sport. The fact that you didn’t made you an outlier,” she said. “After a while I got over it. It worked out well in the end.”

When people are either ignorant or curious, McDermott said she assumes good intent. “It’s difficult because 30 years later we’re still educating people, still trying,” she lamented. “You wonder how much education does it take for people to finally figure it out. We can’t be the teachers; we can’t be the only ones who are constantly trying to educate. We need allies. Enough is enough. I’m done talking, it’s your turn now to share and show how you create an inclusive environment because it’s not all on our shoulders.”

McDermott shared how she struggled to prove herself over and over and over again. “Every single time, every new position, every new job, every new boss. I don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Some day that may change.”

Her advice to students is to get a sponsor, not a mentor. “It’s less about mentorship and more about sponsorship. A sponsor is someone who is going to advocate for you when you’re not in the room. They’re the ones who are going to…talk about your capabilities. If you have sponsors who do that for you, you don’t have to necessarily prove yourself.”

McDermott also encouraged students to “practice leadership.” “Every opportunity you see where you can show up as a leader, that you can be an influencer for good, do it. Don’t wait to be asked. Don’t wait for that special moment or that invitation, just practice it," she continued. "Show up all the time. You don’t know who’s watching. You want to be in a position so when that door opens, you can walk right through it.”

For her final question, Yates asked: “With the recent events that have taken place in our country and even on our campus, where do you see signs of hope?”

McDermott replied: “I see it everywhere. I see it in you.” She spoke about her daughter’s activism in their local community. “When I get an opportunity to interact with Mount students, and I talk about what’s going on, that’s the hope. You are the hope that there is going to be a different tomorrow.” On a final note, she recommended her favorite book that she was introduced to at the Mount titled Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Following up on an audience question about her five-year plan for the Mount, McDermott said: “I think the Mount is in a unique position where we can blend the academics with the character building that’s founded on Christian beliefs and founded on morality. We need a major culture shift, and it needs to happen within the next five years. It’s important that the vision and the intentionality behind what we do at the Mount is making sure we’re giving our students the tools to be resilient as they leave the institution, but also to give back.”

After the event, Yates commented, “What resonated with me is when we talked about what it means to be a leader. We have to go beyond just the surface; we have to be willing to influence those around us and be the difference.”

 “I was blown away by Chair McDermott’s words,” said Erik Menijivar, C’21, president of Mount Students for Life and of the Student Organization of Latinos. “She made it clear that we, the student body, are the hope for this university and for change in our broken world. As a first-generation student and as a Latino, I relate to how I was raised being told to prove yourself repeatedly. I was elated when she talked about the need for cultural shift that spreads Christian values. I never heard a person in authority at a university speak like that. This university is blessed to have her.”

Nicole Patterson