“Imagine this,” said Rita Williams-Bogar ’76 at "Telling HerStory," a Women’s History Month event hosted by the Hochberg Women's Center on March 3. “You’re growing up in the city of Newark during the times of the riots. You're 17 years old, your parents are blue collar workers. You’re first generation and your parents want you to go to college.”
Guidance counselors were pushing young Black students into the trades, not four-year degree programs, and Williams-Bogar felt lost.
“I didn’t do well in woodshop. I didn’t do well in culinary class; I order food,” she said from the stage in Bryant’s Bello Grand Hall, garnering laughs from the audience. So she decided to become an executive secretary. “My parents, who were part of the Great Black Migration from the south to the north, said: ‘If you’re going to be a secretary, you’re going to be a college-educated one.’”
At the time, Bryant offered an associate’s degree in secretarial science. Williams-Bogar got through two years, working each winter and summer break as a legal secretary.
“My boss had more money, more power, more flexibility, and I felt constrained,” she said. She wanted to be on the other side of the desk, so she rolled her associate’s into a bachelor of science in office administration at Bryant.
“I focused on management because, being the first born, I've always told people what to do,” she joked.
As she surpassed external expectations, Williams-Bogar also needed to conquer the critic within.
“I was so shy, the other students used to call me church mouse,” she said. “I conquered shyness here at Bryant by pretending I wasn't shy; I watched the students who were not shy, or at least I didn't think they were shy. They seemed to all be having fun. So I modeled that behavior.”
As one of 24 Black students on a campus of 2,400, she often was faced with racially motivated comments from her classmates.
“I remember sitting in a classroom and one student said, ‘Why do all the black kids sit together? So wait a minute, there are 24 of us, 2,400 of you; you all are sitting together. And his response was crickets. Silence,” she said.
Instead of feeling isolated, Williams-Bogar organized. She joined, and later became president of, Wantu Wazuri, Bryant’s Black student organization named after the Swahili phrase for “beautiful people.” There, she heard from alumni speakers including Donald Lopes ’58, who encouraged the group to give back to the university, even if only $10 at a time. Williams-Bogar credits Lopes, who attended Friday’s event, for instilling in her a strong desire to build a more inclusive Bryant.
"My message to the students was: ‘You are never too young to find your passion and you're never too old to realize your dreams.'"
“I took his words to heart because, when I left Bryant, I was never coming back,” she said. Over the next two-and-a-half decades, Williams-Bogar built a successful career in corporate leadership, then transitioned to consulting with her LLC, Personal Development Solutions. She joined the Bryant Board of Trustees that same year, and now leads its committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion. “I've been coming back now since January of 2004.”
Today, she spends her time doing what she enjoys most: traveling, for work and for leisure. Before the Women’s History Month event at Bryant, she flew to California for a speaking engagement. Next, she’ll return home to New Jersey, fly out to Chicago to present at a conference, and return to Bryant again later this month to present a leadership workshop, “Now That You’re in Charge…” at the 26th annual Women’s Summit. Her Bryant connections have also helped her see the world, from the fjords of Norway to Swaziland.
“Thanks to the Bryant alumni travel program, I've been to six continents; all but Antarctica. I don't pay to be cold,” she said. A runner of six years, she’s also charted routes across four countries and 13 states — and at a steady clip.
She visited Victoria Falls, the world’s most powerful falls, in Zimbabwe on an alumni travel program trip in 2017. Her final bucket list item was the Door of No Return in the Elmina Castle in Ghana, a fortress where enslaved Africans were held captive before being shipped to the Americas.
“I got to stand in the doorway where my ancestors were carted off and put on ships never to come back,” she said.
“One of my biggest goals was to speak in a stadium,” she said. “In September of 2021, I spoke at Convocation as the president of the Alumni Association. And my message to the students was: ‘You are never too young to find your passion and you're never too old to realize your dreams.’ Because of them, I was speaking in a stadium.”
That doesn’t mean she’s achieved all her goals; they evolve over time, as she has.
“I’m still trying to figure out: Okay, what’s next?”
To learn more about Women's History Month events at Bryant, visit the Hochberg Women's Center on Instagram