The 2019-2020 African American Student's Union (AASU) family is officially the largest it has ever been in the history of Harvard Business School. The strength of this community has always been of paramount importance to AASU student leadership, so to celebrate this important milestone, AASU Co-Presidents Kim Foster (MBA ’20) and Melcolm Ruffin (MBA ’20) mobilized a team to organize the club's annual fall retreat.

In addition to commemorating a landmark AASU moment, the purpose of the retreat was to build and further strengthen ties between first-year (RC) and second-year (EC) students. The annual retreat serves as an opportunity to pause and reflect. RCs are often grappling with balancing new priorities, and ECs are trying to embrace the reality that graduation is just around the corner.

The theme of this year's retreat, held in Plymouth, MA, was Building Black Excellence One Connection at a Time. Out of that theme, retreat organizers Kyle Hutton (MBA ’20) and Walter Gichana (MBA ’20) envisioned three primary goals for the weekend: 

1. Relationship Building & Mentorship

2. Personal Growth & Vulnerability

3. Community Building & Family Ties

The weekend kicked off with "Life at HBS," an open Q&A discussion that explored the unique experiences that African-American students often face as they matriculate to HBS. Zainab Lasisi (MBA '20), facilitated an open-dialogue discussion on various facets of life, including academic, personal, and professional. Tuedy Wilson (MBA '21) weighed in on the RC experience. "Almost all of the RCs are going through an uncomfortable adjustment with the classroom, shortage of time, and relationships. We learned that growth will come as a result of all of this - we just need to give it some time." 

At HBS, students have opportunities throughout the year to share their personal stories with the broader HBS community through sessions called myTakes. As an extension of this practice, AASU members Leila Meliani (MBA ’20) and Ian Abbott (MBA ’20) delivered myTakes during the retreat on their personal growth and family history. "By being vulnerable and sharing our personal stories with the community, we're inviting everyone to let their guards down," Leila reflected. "To support each other, we really have to know each other. This experience brought me closer to many of my peers." 

Attendees continued to share stories throughout the day in small group discussions on topics ranging from personal fears, family relationships, proud moments, regrets, and future goals. "We covered a handful of topics, notably, sibling relationships. These thoughtful conversations are what I appreciate most about AASU – fellowship and community," said Matt Sauers (MBA '20). 

These intimate conversations elicited tears in some throughout the retreat. Melcolm Ruffin (MBA '20) noted, "The discussion served as a unique opportunity to be vulnerable, and discuss our values and motivators." The partner perspective was also tightly integrated and welcomed. Chaka Tyson, HBS partner to Tyler Simpson (MBA '20), reflected on the experience, "Attending the retreat was a refreshing experience. I love the community that you all have built on campus, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to be included just like any other student."

Throughout the weekend, students and partners continued to forge connections across the classes. One of the highlights for Brian Hollins (MBA '21) was the "Celebrating Black Excellence" session, in which the members anonymously shared their biggest non-professional dreams that they hope to accomplish with their HBS degrees. Hollins shared that "there's no stronger source of inspiration than a room full of young black professionals challenging the status quo. We are learning how to aim higher as a community, and the long-term impact will bear fruit for those who come after us." 

Alexxis Isaac (MBA '20) echoed similar sentiments. "It was beautiful to hear how - despite having different specific dreams - we were united in a hope to elevate ourselves and, more powerfully, others. It made me even more grateful for the community around me and more aware of the power that we hold together." These responses, which ranged from wanting to fund the college education of 100 underprivileged students, to desires to be parents, revealed the commitment of our community to build excellence in our personal and professional lives.

The weekend concluded in a themed celebration called "School Daze," where members wore their undergraduate college and university gear - a visible representation of the diversity within the community. “At the end of the retreat, I felt like we established a truly special community – a family that will support and uplift each other for years to come,” Kim Foster smiled. “There was, and continues to be, a sense of pride in being a part of the AASU family." 

Retreat organizers, Walter Gichana and Kyle Hutton, were pleased with the positive energy of the weekend and the momentum that it carried through the end of the semester, especially as their time at HBS is approaching its end. Kyle shared, “As a group, we yearned to create avenues to shed the tough exteriors that we often wear on campus and in the professional world. We succeeded in that effort. Finally, we want the AASU family to continue dreaming of the impact that we all seek and the responsibility we hold as future HBS alumni to make a difference in the world.”