2010 Distinguished Alumni Service Award
Alma Carolyn Nesbitt-Powell personifies the power of an Indiana University degree. Since earning a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Elementary Education from IU South Bend 40 years ago, Powell has distinguished herself as an educator, administrator, civil rights champion, community leader, and dedicated IU alumna.
"One of the tenets of an IU education is the formation of students and alumni as global citizens who are conscientious in their responsibility to engage the communities where they reside and work," says Alfred Guillaume Jr., IU South Bend executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. "Alma Powell is a sterling exemplar of a committed citizen actively engaged in the betterment of her community to advance the quality of life in Indiana and, more specifically, in her region."
Powell has been changing lives since she began work as a fourth-grade teacher in the South Bend Community School Corporation (SBCSC). Her skills helped her ascend the school system ranks, leaving to appointments as the first African American principal within the school corporation, as a desegregation implementer tasked with bringing resource equity to inner-city students, and finally as the director of SBCSC's integration and information program, where she implemented the district's first public relations plan. As an adjunct professor at IU South Bend and Goshen College, Powell has helped scores of future educators learn their craft. She retired in 2002 as director of curriculum and instruction for Elkhart Community Schools.
Even when busy building an impressive career, Powell has always been an IU supporter. She served as the first African American chairwoman of the Indiana University Alumni Association Board of Managers and as president of the IU School of Education's advisory board. And although she technically retired 10 years ago, Powell continues to change her world for the better.
One shining example is her involvement with IU South Bend's Civil Rights Heritage Center at The Natatorium. By all accounts, Powell was instrumental in the creation of the center, which has a mission to preserve the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the achievements of local citizens. Her years as a schoolteacher and administrator, not to mention her experiences as an African American woman accustomed to breaking barriers, prepared her for this new challenge.
One of the first hurdles was convincing the local community that housing the center in The Natatorium would be a good idea. Built in 1922, The Natatorium excluded black residents until 1936, when they were only allowed access one day a week, at the end of which the pool would be drained and refilled for white patrons. The pool was completely desegregated in 1950. Hard feelings about these degrading practices persisted decades later. Kevin Lamarr James, director of the center, recalls being new to town and unsure of his own ability to convince the African American community to support repurposing the site as a civil rights memorial. That's where Powell's vision and tact came in. "Alma was very thoughtful, strategic, and devoted to the cause and went above and beyond what any of us might have imagined to ensure that history was not lost," says James.
Since opening in 2010, the Civil Rights Heritage Center at The Natatorium has thrived, earning local and national recognition as well as three grants to establish an African American Civil Rights Landmark Tour in South Bend. Powell remains involved with the center, consulting on educational outreach and programming. The Natatorium is just one of the many projects to benefit from the influence of Alma Powell. As Guillaume sums up, "Alma is an outstanding alumna of Indiana
University, a deeply committed community citizen, and an extraordinary human being whose selfless devotion to her alma mater and to humankind is unparalleled."
In 2019, Powell was awarded Indiana University's Bicentennial Medal, in recognition of her distinguished contributions and longstanding support of the university.