Scholarship fund is thank you from alumna

Professor Benson Onyeji congratulates Alicia Roberts ’01 Baird in 2018 for receiving Manchester’s Young Alumni Outstanding Achievement Award.

Alicia Roberts ’01 Baird says Professor Benson Onyeji inspired her to learn, travel

Alicia Roberts ’01 Baird
is forever grateful to Professor Benson Onyeji for changing her life at Manchester.

Now she is honoring him with a scholarship to recognize his recent retirement, and hopes that other alumni will want to contribute, too.

Baird was one of only two African-American women in her class when she arrived at Manchester in the fall of 1997. “It was a big culture shock,” says the Indianapolis native. “I was really questioning if it was the right place for me.”

Gradually, Professor Onyeji put those questions to rest. During her first January session, Baird learned about colonization and the struggles of African nations in Onyeji’s African History course. “It was the first time I had the opportunity to engage with Black history in a meaningful way at Manchester,” she says.

Toward the end of her first year, when she was having doubts about returning, Onyeji secured a $1,000 donation for Baird to take his study abroad course in Ghana the following January. Baird earned a Kauffman award for the remaining funds and put aside her thoughts about transferring.

“I returned to Manchester for the study of a lifetime,” says Baird.

One of those lessons came before she left. For spending money, she had gathered $447 and worried that it wouldn’t be enough until she learned that it was $40 more than Ghana’s 1998 per capita gross domestic product of $407. “I was shocked,” she says. “It was my first eye-opening experience around larger economic conversations,” she added, and it inspired her to major in economics.

In Africa with Onyeji, Baird learned about rich layers of African history and culture, and about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While many slaves died on the crossing, many did not, including Baird’s ancestors. “It helped me to craft my own personal identity as an African-American woman,” she said. “It helped me to understand that mine are very strong people who are resilient and have continued strength and legacy.  I always associate that spirit with Benson because he provided those foundations for me.”

The experience whetted her appetite for more travel. Baird spent her senior year studying in Athens, Greece, and returned to West Africa twice with Onyeji-led groups.

Today, Baird lives in Indianapolis with her husband, Ivan, and their three children. For 18 years, she has worked for Strada Education Network (formerly USA Funds), where she is director of grant systems and administration.

In 2018, Manchester awarded Baird with the Young Alumni Outstanding Achievement Award.

As a member of MU’s Board of Trustees from 2006 to 2010, she learned the importance of philanthropy and gifts that live on in perpetuity. That includes the scholarship she established, which is directed toward students of color and Model UN, a program she says is “near and dear” to Onyeji’s heart.

“He has been such a close mentor and friend to me since I was a student,” Baird says of Onyeji, who walked her down the aisle at her wedding in place of her deceased father.

The scholarship in Onyeji’s honor is “a way to keep his legacy alive at Manchester,” Baird says, “to make sure that we give flowers to the living. That he understands the importance of his legacy for students at the college and also for the greater community.” She added, “He truly brought the world to the small town of North Manchester.”