Building a Cal Network in Chicago: Marcus Powell ’00

Most Cal alumni living in Chicago aren’t from Chicago. They move for a job, or possibly a partner’s job, and adjust to the frigid winters as best they can.

Alumni can attend Cal watch parties at Redmond’s Ale House and other social events hosted by the Cal Alumni Club of Chicago, but some want a deeper connection. In a city of 2.7 million, 2,000 miles from home, how can alumni give back?

Marcus Powell ’00, Chicago District Chair for the area’s Leadership Award scholarship finalists, sees volunteering as a way to get to know fellow alumni while making an important contribution to UC Berkeley. “I think a lot of alumni wish they could give back more but don’t think they can,” he says. “I was in the same position. The District Chair position gives you an avenue to participate.”

Now in its 84th year, The Leadership Award recognizes and supports Cal’s student leaders with merit-based scholarships. With more than 15,000 scholars supported since its inception, The Leadership Award is the largest non-academic merit scholarship on the UC Berkeley campus.

Now in its 84th year, The Leadership Award has supported more than 15,000 scholars since inception.

Powell has overseen the Leadership Award interview process since 2011. As District Chair, Powell oversees the interview process for local Leadership Award scholarship finalists. A team of volunteer interviewers question finalists during one intense afternoon.

Serving on an interview panel doesn’t allow much time for chitchat. A few years ago, a volunteer suggested the group meet for brunch before the panels so that people could get to know one another. Powell and his volunteer team have met every year since.

“For us to meet each other and socialize a little bit has been a nice change,” Powell says. “It gives us space to talk about where we’re from, what kind of work we do, and what brought us to Chicago.”

A Family Away from Home

Like many volunteers, Powell serves as a way to give back to a program and a university that helped shape his career.

A three-time Leadership Award recipient (1997–1999), Powell says receiving the scholarship confirmed he belonged in a top-tier university. “In some cases it’s likely you’ve been one of the highest achievers in your school,” he says. “Then you join a community where everyone’s that way. It’s challenging, but it’s also the most exciting thing about going to Cal. I came from Houston and a lot of my peers stayed there. I was like, ‘I’m going to get on a one-way flight to California and I’m not coming back.’”

Powell arrived at UC Berkeley not knowing a soul. From his Leadership Award cohort, he found a welcoming community that helped him feel less alone. “I knew I belonged, I knew that’s where I wanted to be, and I knew I made the right choice,” he says.

Sophomore year during a gymnastics meet at Oklahoma University. Powell found another, equally important family in Cal’s Men’s Gymnastics team—NCAA National Gymnastics Champions his sophomore year. “It was great to have that community, especially in the beginning,” he says. “There were upperclassmen, seniors, and people in the middle. You could go to people if you needed advice or had questions. That’s not always available when you’re a freshman in the dorms.”

Training and competing with the Men’s Gymnastics team also helped Powell further develop his teamwork, leadership, and time-management skills. He would use them in sports and to graduate with honors with a B.A. in architecture.

After earning his master’s in architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he used those tools again as a field organizer for the Barack Obama Campaign. His teamwork and leadership background also helped him move through the ranks at various architecture firms as project coordinator, project architect, and, today, as senior architectural designer at Architrave Ltd.

“Balancing the demands of being a student-athlete forces you to be efficient about how you organize your time,” Powell says. “You have to have some self-determination to make sure you get your tasks done quickly, because you don’t have a whole lot of time to mess around.”

Meeting Tomorrow’s Leaders

Powell stayed in touch with the Cal Alumni Club of Chicago for about five years before a fellow alum asked him to serve as District Chair. He immediately agreed.

As a District Chair, Powell recruits and trains alumni volunteers to serve as interviewers. Thanks to Chicago’s reasonably robust alumni network, he says he almost always has more than enough. “They limit the panel to three to five alumni, and some years I have ten people that want to volunteer,” he says.

To recruit and engage volunteers, Powell coordinates with the Cal Alumni Association to find prospective recruits. He also attends local alumni events and new student receptions to meet potential volunteers. “There’s always plenty that want to participate,” he says. “I’ve seen that people from Cal want to give back.”

Aside from recruiting and coordinating interviewers, Powell reserves a venue and coordinates interview times with scholarship finalists. Interviews usually take place on a Sunday. Powell greets and chats with the candidates to help calm their nerves.

“This might be their first interaction with alumni and with what their education at Cal can become.”

Meeting the next generation of leaders has a profound effect on many District Chairs, who say they get back as much as they give. “Many alumni who finish the [interviewing] process say, ‘Those were some very amazing kids. If those are the ones getting into Cal now, I don’t know how I did’,” Powell says. “Knowing what these kids are doing, seeing what they can achieve, how they spend their time, what they’ve done to either give back to their community or to be leaders in their own schools is a reward in itself.”

Powell also remembers what it felt like to be the kid from Houston that didn’t know anyone. District Chairs and interviewers can serve as a bridge between students’ current and future homes.

Freshman year under Sather Gate. “This might be their first interaction with alumni and with what their education at Cal can become,” he says. “Here’s somebody who’s getting her Ph.D. in chemistry at Northwestern. Here’s a practicing lawyer for the City of Chicago. Here’s a practicing, licensed architect. They see Cal alumni move on to places of either important studies or important work. In some cases, that’s their first touch with what their college education can bring them.”

At Architrave, Powell serves as the point person for higher education and institutional projects. He coordinates various elements of production and design with clients and coworkers. As someone with experience juggling many roles, his professional and volunteer positions seem like perfect fits.

“Because of my experience at Cal—being an out-of-state student, being in Chicago, and being a previous Leadership Award recipient—it feels like the right avenue for me to give back,” he says. “It’s rewarding to know I have a way to plug in and contribute as an alum.”

by Heather R. Johnson


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