Adviser Ersa Austin leads sorority to 35th anniversary

Adriane Hardin

On Ersa Austin’s lapel is a round, branded pin with an ivy leaf and the colors green and pink. The words Alpha Kappa Alpha are etched in gold around the pin.

“The ivy leaf means strength and clinging together,” 63-year-old Austin said. “Ivy clings, so we (AKA sisters) always cling together.”

The ivy leaf and colors represent a decision Austin made in 1976 to join the graduate chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Austin was married when she attended Western. She was never a member of AKA as an undergraduate.

She attended State Street Baptist Church with several women who were members of Hopkinsville’s graduate chapter of AKA. It was their example that influenced Ersa’s decision to join AKA.

“I really looked up to those ladies, and I noticed that they would take part in community activities,” Austin said. “And there were so many things they did, and I thought, I can do those things too.”

Twenty-two years later, Austin is treasurer of the graduate chapter of AKA and adviser of Western’s undergraduate chapter, which celebrated its 35th anniversary this weekend.

“We’re the first black sorority, founded in 1908,” AKA president and Hopkinsville senior April White said. “And to also be the first one on this campus, words just can’t describe.”

Putting in time

According to Student Activities coordinator Charley Pride, Austin’s 22 years makes her the longest serving current Greek adviser.

“Some people say ‘Oh, don’t you get tired?'” Austin said. “No, they are a wonderful group of young ladies. I don’t mind taking the time to work with them.”

This weekend, AKA celebrated its 35 years of sisterhood with several events for alumnae that brought charter members back to campus.

“If it wasn’t for them starting this chapter, I might have never become an AKA,” White said. “I might have never met these girls.”

Louisville senior and AKA member Felicia Williams’ mother Janice Williams joined AKA in 1971.

“They were looking for African-American females in 1971 with high academic standards willing to go out and work in the community,” Williams said.

History

It was 1968. Louisville sophomore Sherrie Lyons wanted to be a part of an organization so she could give back to the community. Lyons wanted to be in a sorority.

The only problem was Western’s Greek system was exclusively white – off limits to black students like Lyons.

“We knew other campuses in the country that were integrated,” Lyons said. “So our goal was to have the opportunity to have organizations (for black students) on our campus as well.”

Lyons and others took their plan to Western’s administration, and the first black sorority in the country became Western’s first black sorority.

Western’s chapter of AKA started with 17 members.

The members began service projects immediately, including fund raising for underprivileged children in Bowling Green.

Charter member Christola Clark-Davidson, a 1970 graduate, said she was excited to see traditions like the Miss Black Western Pageant still going strong.

“We know they did a lot of great things, not just social things but academically,” Braxton said. “And for them to say that we’re continuing doing what they started and that they’re proud of us, it felt really good.”

Western’s chapter of AKA was only a few years old when Lyons and Davidson graduated. They had forever changed life for many black women who would come to Western after them, but it wasn’t a thought they dwelled on.

“I really think it was a self-interest kind of thing,” Lyons said. “We just wanted to work in a sisterhood of women.”

Like a mom

Former AKA president and 1994 Bowling Green alumna Nikita Stewart said Austin has always been the group’s guiding force.

“She has been a great inspiration for us all, and her love of AKA has rubbed off on everybody else,” Stewart said.

The guidance Austin offers to the AKA sisters is a lot like the advice a mother might give. She’s a stickler for the rules, and she’s always looking out for them.

As an adviser, Austin attends all of AKA’s functions – including parties.

Louisville senior Nicole Simpson said that while Austin doesn’t enjoy the noise, she never criticizes any of the sisters.

But she does have a special look that she reserves for parties that she thinks might get rowdy.

“Ms. Ersa is very much a lady,” AKA member and Louisville senior Jennifer Downey said. “She’s very conservative and she has the look.”

Making the grade

Austin may be open-minded when it comes to some aspects of advising, but sometimes she’s all about the basics.

One of Austin’s highest priorities for AKA is their grade point averages, Downey said.

“Stepping is OK, social stuff is OK,” Austin said. “But I always say you are here for your education so you can get a job when you get out.”

For sorority-wide GPAs, the AKAs have ranked in the top three among all sororities for seven of the past 12 semesters.

When Austin began to work as adviser in 1981, she was already looking ahead to the future.

“I hoped that (AKA) would grow and continue to keep their GPAs and their scholarly work top notch,” Austin said .Austin said AKA’s goals at the moment are clear.

“We are focused right now on education, that’s the main thing,” Austin said. “And also on the black family, these are two of the main ones.”

Finding a balance

Austin balances the hectic schedule of a Greek adviser with that of a substitute teacher. She taught elementary school at Bristow Elementary school in Bowling Green for 27 years. She now substitutes teaches.

“I love it,” Austin said. “I know the parents of the children there. It’s (substituting at Bristow) like going home.”

The free time she has is spent at her real home with her husband of 45 years, who is also retired.

It is his support and patience that have helped her succeed as an adviser for 22 years.

“Sometimes I get in late at 12 or one in the morning, and I have to leave a note and say I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Austin said.

The future

Austin plans to continue with the parties, the step shows and the banquets that center around AKA.

“It’s so hard to explain the joy I get from working with them,” Austin said.

“We have a true sisterhood, and we are like a family,” White said. “We don’t just come to our AKA meetings and go about our merry ways.”

Reach Adriane Hardin at [email protected]