Since 1976, Don Bramlett has been focused on building—building confidence in students, and more importantly, building a legacy of success for students of color. As founder of Black Male Initiative (BMI) and Supporting Opportunities for Latinos (SOL), Bramlett’s impact at NIU will continue long after his retirement on Friday, June 1.
Bramlett founded BMI in 2001 to help increase the retention and graduation rates of African-American males. The program provides students with activities that recognize academic success, promote community service, instill leadership skills and foster social interaction.
“I think it’s important to have people on campus who are really strong advocates for our students and who will follow up with students,” Bramlett recently told The Northern Star. “I don’t want students to come here, to be here for three years, accumulate debt and not get their degree.”
Gena Flynn, director of the Center for Black Studies sees Don’s advocacy and follow-up on a daily basis. “Don Bramlett offers a level of support to all students like I’ve never seen in higher ed,” said Flynn. “There’s never a doubt that his care is genuine, and when Don knows that a student—or a colleague for that matter—needs assistance he will show up and do all that he can to help.”
Many of the 65 students who are part of BMI point to Bramlett’s advocacy and mentorship as the catalyst for their success. “Don made me aware of the untapped potential I was yet to reach,” said TevinTerel Johnson, a graduate research assistant with the Office of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “I believe he saw the greatness in me before I saw it in myself.”
Speaking of Bramlett’s ability to build students’ confidence, Johnson continues, “Don pushed me to be a better me and has helped me reach levels I never dreamed of. He challenged me, taught me and respected my unique growth process.
“Being from the South Side of Chicago, no one teaches you about the importance of education and demanding work. We grow up with a very limited sense of what we can accomplish and most of us rarely dream to be anything,” said Johnson. “One of the greatest things Don has done for me is to give me vision. He has opened my eyes to a world of possibility that I never thought true. Don sparked a fire in me that will never fade.”
Bramlett’s dedication to students who are part of BMI has had a significant payoff—BMI was awarded the 2014 Outstanding Student Organization Award by Student Involvement and Leadership Development and BMI students are twice as likely to graduate than their peers.
Bramlett has not only focused on helping African-American males achieve success in higher education, he has also been an advocate for NIU’s Latino community. On the heels of BMI’s success, Bramlett organized SOL in 2006, which has grown to a group of 25 members. In addition, Bramlett has been the advisor of the Latino Student Alliance (LSA) and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).
“Latino at heart, Don is one of the most loved advisors on campus,” said Luis Santos Rivas, director of the Latino Resource Center. “He is one of the most dedicated individuals I have ever met, helping students of all races.”
Alejandro Ramirez, a member of SOL and a graduate research assistant with the Center for Black Studies, recalls Bramlett’s encouragement and dedication. “The encouragement I received from Don to pursue my master’s degree was the same encouragement and assistance I have seen him provide many students during my short time on campus. I have encountered students who have come to him defeated, with little to no hope, and time and time again Don provides the assistance and resources they had no idea existed.”
Bramlett’s reputation as a caring mentor predates his time at NIU. “Don Bramlett was my high school guidance counselor at Danville High School in a decade not to be mentioned,” said Melanie Magara, director of Community Communications in the Office of the President. “Imagine my surprise nearly twenty years later to run into him here on my first day at NIU. He has remained the warm, kind and dedicated person I remembered, and his legacy will be the hundreds of students who graduated into successful lives and careers due to his encouragement.”
Bramlett’s impact on students’ success has not gone unnoticed by the university administration. “Don is a gem and has made a significant impact on the lives of African American and Latino students at NIU,” said Chief Diversity Officer Vernese Edghill-Walden. “His commitment to student retention and graduation has been unwavering and is evidenced by his presence at all winter and spring commencements where he stands at the bottom of the steps to be the first to shake hands with his mentees, the new Huskie alumni. His number one goal is our number one goal—to ensure that our students graduate. Thank you, Don!”
Bramlett’s departure from the university will also be felt in the DeKalb community. Throughout his career, he has established relationships with organizations such as the Beloved Community, the DeKalb Police and the Voluntary Action Center to provide students with service opportunities and civic engagement.
For his own part, Bramlett says it’s not likely he’ll be idle for long.
“I’m not sure what I’ll do next,” he said, “but it will have something to do with helping students. It’s just who I am and what I value.”
NIU plans to continue the BMI, SOL, LSA and SHPE programs after Bramlett’s departure. These programs serve as excellent examples of strategies that promote life and career success for students of color. They will continue under the leadership and support of the Center for Black Studies and the Latino Resource Center.