The long road back

Billy Dexter has hundreds of stories to tell about his successful life. Those stories focus on positive life lessons, looking forward and never looking back, facing challenges and creating opportunities.

One of those stories involved him earning a bachelor’s degree in history from SVSU in 1984. But it wasn’t until a lesson learned 25 years after his graduation that he was able to tell perhaps the most important story of all: how looking back and reconnecting to one’s personal history — the good and the not-so-good — is what makes a story authentic and truly makes a person whole.

For Dexter, that meant looking back. That meant talking about a place and a past that held as much struggle and pain as it did hope and promise, because “back” was where his truth was. “Back” was where all of his adult experiences were shaped.

“Back,” for Dexter, was SVSU.

As the first in his family to earn a college degree, life at SVSU in the 1980s wasn’t easy for the Detroit native. Determination — a hallmark of Dexter’s life — made success his only option.

Many of his later accomplishments were inspired by lessons learned as a member of SVSU’s 1982 NAIA National Championship-winning men’s track team. It was a fairly simple overture from then-coach Doug Hansen that shaped Dexter’s approach to his entire SVSU experience: if you are willing to work hard and be a team player, you will be welcomed here. More importantly, the coach told Dexter, you will belong here.

With that sense of belonging, Dexter was inspired to excel at SVSU.

Through hard work and dedication, overcoming obstacles was routine for Dexter. From living at Delta College and running to the SVSU campus for classes because he had no car, to missing Christmas with family so he could work to earn money for school, Dexter always kept his eye on the prize: a college degree. And, with his May commencement in 1984, Dexter put his life in “drive,” deciding to journey forward and never look back.

And what a journey.

Prior to his role today as a managing partner of the Chicago-based executive search firm, Heidrick & Struggles, Dexter served as executive vice president and chief diversity officer for MTV Network. He has served on multiple boards in his adopted hometown of Chicago, including the NFL Players Advisory Association.

His awards are numerous. They include recognition as one of the “Top 100 Global Diversity Thought Leaders” from the Society of Human Resources Management. He also was recognized as SVSU’s Outstanding Alumnus for the College of Arts & Behavioral Sciences in 2010, and later, the university’s 2011 Outstanding Alumnus.

Around 2007, Dexter was offered a book opportunity. With the help of a ghost writer, he shared his experiences and advice about the value of networking in creating success. In an early meeting with his co-writer, he was asked to discuss his origins.

Such a simple question, yet Dexter was caught off-guard. He suddenly became emotional.

“I started to talk about how I had applied to 16 colleges. All — even SVSU at first — turned me down,” Dexter said. “I couldn’t get through the conversation. I didn’t understand it, but I thought the next time we talked, I’d get further. But I didn’t. I still choked up.”

Several months went by; nothing changed, and Dexter ultimately was resigned to shelve the book project. As time passed, Dexter continued to struggle understanding why he became so emotional when recalling his past. So haunting was it that he decided to dig deeper.

A short time later, a professional therapist told Dexter, “You talk about your journey from the time of your first success. You accomplished so much when there was so little expectation. You never stopped and you never looked back. What gets you emotional is looking back.”

In that moment, Dexter realized that he had lived his adult life with a philosophy that focused exclusively on the present. He realized his success story — the one he shared with many people over the years — was incomplete. It never included looking back.

It never included his alma mater.

As this self-discovery deepened, Dexter received a phone call in late 2009 from Mamie Thorns, SVSU’s special assistant to the president for diversity programs. It took three messages before Dexter returned the call.

“I couldn’t understand why Saginaw Valley would be reaching out,” he said. “I thought maybe I owed money. In the moment, I panicked and thought that maybe I was somehow short on credit hours.”

But it wasn’t anything like that. Thorns was calling to reconnect and ask if Dexter would participate in a new SVSU program co-hosted by the Office of Diversity Programs and Alumni Relations. The initiative, called Life After SVSU, was an opportunity for alumni to share stories with minority students. Dexter also was asked to be a part of the assemblage of the new African American Alumni Association Chapter at SVSU. He took time before agreeing to join both. Since then, he’s served as a mentor to several SVSU students.

The reconnection enabled him to more ardently embrace his personal narrative and journey. His story — and his reconnection with SVSU — was compelling enough that Dexter was asked to share it as the keynote speaker during the university’s December 2015 commencement ceremonies.

“It doesn’t matter how long it’s been,” Dexter said. “You can make a difference in the lives of SVSU students and young alumni by simply getting connected … or reconnected.”

Billy Dexter

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