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3 Lessons From Hosting the 40th Distinguished Alumni Awards at the University of Memphis

In 2019 when I became the president of the University of Memphis Alumni Association National Board of Directors, hosting the 40th Distinguished Alumni Awards (DAA) program was something I looked forward to doing at the end of my term.

Summer Owens hosting the University of Memphis Distinguished Alumni Awards

For me, it was so much more than being able to host an awards program.

In my memoir, I share how hurt I was at the awards program when I graduated from high school. As a teen mom, I was looked down on and counted out by a lot of people. However, I earned a full leadership scholarship to the University of Memphis and couldn’t wait for my opportunity on awards day to stand and show those who doubted me that I had earned a scholarship.

However, my guidance counselor overlooked my name as she called the names of students with scholarships and instructed them to stand and be recognized. I didn’t get to stand. I wasn’t recognized. I was hurt because I felt like I didn’t get my moment to show I was more than the teen mom who disappointed everyone.

But I did get a scholarship. I did go the University of Memphis, and over 20 years later I was the president of the National Alumni Association Board of Directors. I would HOST the biggest awards program of the university. This would be much bigger than that moment in high school.

Then that crazy 2020 life-disruptor changed everything for everyone.

There was no DAA at the end of my term. I would not be hosting anything, and I was asked (sort of forced) to serve another term because no nominations or elections would be held to select new officers. I was excited to serve again because there was much more that I wanted to accomplish for alumni.

At the end of that term and, at that point, two challenging years of leadership during COVID, my opportunity to host DAA returned. And went away nearly as fast when the decision was made to postpone the ceremony again until 2022. Then we would also have a new president.

What was the big deal about hosting the 40th Distinguished Alumni Awards?

Yes, it was a little selfish and lot special because of the honorees.

In 1997 when I became a student at the University of Memphis, I was already a mother. I was doubted by many and often doubted myself. So I was proud of myself for graduating magna cum laude and being named Miss University of Memphis in 2001, being named Fogelman College of Business and Economics Outstanding Young Alumna in 2012, for receiving the DAA Young Alumna/i honor in 2013 (the year after Penny Hardaway received the same honor), and for serving as the president of the board from 2019-2021.


Summer Owens Distinguished Alumni Award Outststanding Young Alumna 2013Summer Owens receiving the University of Memphis Distinguished Alumni Award from Dana Gabrion and Anita Vaughan


The Distinguished Alumni Awards are special. Inspiring. And the ceremony always makes me even prouder to be alumni of the University of Memphis. Each year, the stories of the honorees, some even celebrities, remind me of the blessing I had to attend and graduate from an amazing university.

But THIS DAA was even more special for me because of the honorees who had been selected in 2019 and were put on hold to be recognized.

All the honorees were amazing and deserving. But three played major roles in my life.

  1. My ability to attend the University of Memphis and achieve the success I did there. Luther C. McClellan, Distinguished Alumnus, was the first black graduate of the University of Memphis and part of the Memphis State Eight. I had the honor of interviewing him for my S.O. What! Success Stories series on YouTube. Unfortunately, Luther was ill and unable to attend the event. My new amazing friend, Bertha Rogers Looney, also one of the Memphis State Eight, accepted the award on his behalf. I had the honor of interviewing her for the very first episode of S.O. What! Success Stories.
  2. My ability to survive my freshman year and beyond as a first-generation college student AND a teen mother. Tammy Hedges, UofM Illustrious Service Award, is the Executive Vice President for University Relations. But when I was a freshman she was the director of the Student Activities Council (SAC) which I joined during Welcome Week. Tammy saw how hard I was trying to balance being an involved student and a mother, and she helped me. She loved (and still does) me and my son. She even babysat him in the office and overnight giving him experiences like going out to eat, going to the movies, and getting new toys that I couldn’t afford. She encouraged me as a student and for the over 20 years after. She’s in my memoir. :)          Tammy Hedges and Summer Owens at DAA                                                                                                    
  3. My ability to see myself in my career. Beverly Robertson, Distinguished Alumna, is the former CEO of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, former Executive Director of the National Civil Rights Museum, and the owner of TRUST Marketing. When I started my career with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2001, I was blessed with a great manager, great president, and great family of staff. But I saw myself and more of what was possible for me as a 21 year old black woman when I met and worked with the sweet powerhouse, Beverly Robertson, when she was the Executive Director of the National Civil Rights Museum. In the past 20 years, she has become my mentor and my friend. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture on my phone with Beverly that night, but I’ll never forget her kissing me hard on my cheek at least five times after we took a group photo and telling me that she was so proud of me. This was us at the National Civil Rights Freedom Awards several years ago.

Beverly Robertson and Summer Owens

No less remarkable were the other honorees.

George Johnson, Distinguished Alumnus, Principal at BJB Administrative Services 

▪ Monique McClain, Outstanding Young Alumna,Vice President, Wealth Management, JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Mayor Jim Strickland, Rudi & Honey Scheidt Community Impact Award, Mayor of the City of Memphis

Haizlip Studio (Mary and Reb Haizlip), Distinguished University Friend, Haizlip Studios

Scott Forman / Rudi & Honey Scheidt Community Impact Award, TOM III Tiger Guard


Disappointment Turns Into Opportunity

So in 2020 and again in 2021, I was disappointed when I would not get the opportunity to honor these amazing people by hosting the Distinguished Alumni Awards.

But in 2022 when I was the immediate past president of the University of Memphis National Board of Directors, I was asked by the new director of the Alumni Association if I was interested in hosting the Distinguished Alumni Awards along with the current president. The new president, Nestor Rodriguez, was my friend who I had known since my undergraduate years and had served on the national board with me for several years. I knew it would be fun and an honor to co-host with him.

Nestor Rodriguez and Summer Owens Distinguished Alumni Awards 2022


Summer Owens and Nestor Rodriguez hosting the Distinguished Alumni Awards at the University of Memphis

And we did.

The night was just as special if I had hosted the event in 2020. I’m grateful for every bit of this story and every person it. I’m grateful for the University of Memphis and my journey to this special honor of hosting the 40th Distinguished Alumni Awards.

I took as my date for the night one of my former students from the Life Skills course I was asked to create for the Fogelman College of Business and Economics. Destiny was always eager to attend class and learn from me, and today she is a successful professional. Still eager to learn, and I love it!
Destiny Johnson and Summer Owens at the University of Memphis Distinguished Alumni Awards

Another highlight of the night was reconnecting with many fellow alums from over two decades ago including Greg Caeser who was Mr. University of Memphis was I was Ms….21 years ago! I think we’ve held up well, and we’re still supporting the University of Memphis! Check out more fun pictures from the 40th Distinguished Alumni Awards as well as from 2013 when I was given the amazing honor.

Summer Owens and Greg Caesar Mr. and Ms. University of Memphis 2001

So here are 3 Lessons from Hosting the 40th Distinguished Alumni Awards

  1. Stay connected – From fellow students and staff to those I met on my life and career journey, I genuinely care about people and am intentional about staying connected. That has led to beautiful relationships and amazing opportunities.
  2. Be patient – I have to admit, saying I was disappointed about not being to honor some special people in such a big way by hosting the 40th Distinguished Alumni Awards is an understatement. I had experienced a rough two years trying to be an impactful president and really wanted this opportunity that looked like was not going to happen. But it did, and it was even better hosting with my friend.
  3. Pay it forward – The fact I graduated from the University of Memphis and have had so many amazing opportunities was because of the sacrifice, generosity and thoughtfulness of people who came before me. I count it as a privilege and responsibility to do the same for those who come behind me.
And here’s a bonus…Don’t forget to smile!
Interested in having me speak to your group or at your next event? Just contact me, and get ready to say, “SO WHAT!”.