Claflin University Celebrates 40 Outstanding Leaders Under 40

Nov 08, 2023

Claflin University hosted its Third Annual 40 Outstanding Leaders Under 40 Awards Ceremony on Friday, Oct. 27, at Sulit Luxe Affairs in downtown Orangeburg, S.C.  This year's event was the first in-person celebration for the 40 Outstanding Leaders Under 40. The inaugural event in 2020 was held virtually.

"I had a vision for this event several years ago during discussions about how to acknowledge the accomplishments of our younger alumni," said Claflin President Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack. "Every place I go, I am asked, 'What are we doing for younger alumni?' You know we are getting older. I hear that from a lot of the alums."

Warmack said he noticed other universities recognizing the accomplishments of their alumni under 40 to say “Thank you” – not as fundraising events. 

"I just want to thank you, and say we need you," he said. "We want you to keep coming home, stay engaged, and help us tell the Claflin story. Because of your success, we have been a Top 10 Best HBCU for 13 straight years – but we want to be in the Top Five. It's imperative that you help us tell that story.  Claflin has produced a lot of engineers, doctors, attorneys, and leaders in other professions. Tonight, we want to celebrate each and every one of you and your accomplishments." 

Bernita Cooper, Waverly Gordon, and Jay Dukes were among the high-achieving alumni honored for their personal and professional accomplishments.

Cooper's interest in storytelling, a love for reading, and growing up in the social media age led her to pursue a career in public relations and social media. After graduating from Claflin University in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in mass communications, she continued her education and earned a master's degree from George Washington University. The Hemingway, S.C. native spearheaded social media campaigns and initiatives at Historically Black Colleges/Universities (HBCUs) in South Carolina and North Carolina.

"This recognition means a lot to me," said Cooper, whose mother and sister also graduated from Claflin. I knew as a high school student that I wanted to go to Claflin, and I knew that I wanted to major in mass communications. I was really excited about being on the campus as a student and while working in the Office of Communications and Marketing at Claflin.

Cooper is currently senior communications manager at ColorComm, Inc., the leading women's organization addressing diversity and inclusion across the communications, marketing, advertising, and digital industry. She is part of ColorComm's headquarters team in New York City.

“I always advocate for the University, but this award challenges me to step it up and look at how I can give back more to Claflin – financially and by mentoring students in the mass communications department,” Cooper said.

Gordon, a 2004 graduate, serves as deputy staff director and general counsel for the Committee on Energy and Commerce for the U.S. House of Representatives. She manages efforts on various policy issues, including telecommunications, health care, climate change, and consumer protection. During the 117th Congress, the Committee led efforts that became law as part of the American Rescue Plan, the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, and the Inflation Reduction Act.

"This is huge," said Gordon. “I have received awards from other organizations and schools – but this is special because this is home.”

Gordon hardly envisioned a successful career on Capitol Hill after earning a bachelor's degree in biology at Claflin. It was a circuitous journey that led her to work alongside federal lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"When I attended graduate school, I wanted to be a hospital administrator. However, I fell in love with health policy and decided this would be my career," said the Simpsonville, S.C. native. Gordon earned a Master of Health Administration from The Ohio State University and a Juris Doctor from Duke University. After law school, Gordon earned a Fellowship through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

 "I've been on Capitol Hill for 13 years and a deputy staffer for a little over two years. Claflin gave me the confidence to walk in any room and feel like I belong. The ‘Claflin Confidence’ is real."

Dukes, a 2010 Claflin graduate, is a comedic host and entrepreneur who began working in the entertainment industry as a highly requested master of ceremonies for hundreds of major collegiate events. Dukes has opened for the legendary Patti Labelle and co-hosted Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Incorporated's 81st Grand Conclave step show with Rickey Smiley.

Dukes credits Dr. Shawn Foster, the current superintendent of Orangeburg County School District 5, for introducing him to Claflin University. He was a student at Dorman High School in Spartanburg where Foster served as an assistant principal.  Foster brought him to Claflin for a meeting with an administrator in the Admissions Office. Together, they convinced the administrator that Claflin’s nurturing and familial environment were just what Dukes needed.

“Claflin provided the discipline, structure and foundation I needed,” said Dukes.

“I was not ready for college. But Dr. Foster became my mentor and he challenged and inspired me to succeed.  Dr. Foster and the faculty, staff, and administrators at Claflin helped me develop as a person and as a student. I am grateful that so many people have helped me along the way.”

Dukes received an additional accolade when Dr. Warmack announced that his $10,000 gift to Claflin was the largest among this year's 40 Outstanding Leaders Under 40 Awards recipients.

“For everything Claflin has done for me, that is a drop in the bucket," Dukes said. "I'm being completely honest – Claflin set me up for success. I started hosting shows such as the Pre-Alumni Council Conference for the NAACP, talent shows, and other events at Claflin and other colleges – as an undergraduate."

Dukes’ versatility as a multi-talented entertainer made him a highly sought-after host/performer. His popularity led Dukes to launch Aux Cord Wars, LLC, as the company's CEO and founder. Aux Cord Wars, LLC., is one of the premiere companies for college engagement and activations for black and brown students nationwide. ACW executes 35-40 activations a semester and a minimum of 70 annually.

In addition to his generous financial gift, Dukes gives back to Claflin by hosting "Jay Dukes' Training Day and Claflin's "Let's Talk" Panel – an annual event for the University's first-year students. His entrepreneurship also includes Beyond the Stage Productions, a business partnership with his wife, LaRhonda. 

“These alumni are making their mark in their respective professions,” said Dr. Marcus Burgess, vice president of Institutional Advancement at Claflin. “These are bold and energetic leaders who have inspired, empowered, and embraced their communities.  We congratulate you and are profoundly grateful that you are continuing Claflin’s legacy of visionary leadership. Your success has greatly enhanced the growing reputation and admiration of your Alma Mater.”

Note:  Photographs from this event provided per request from the Office of  Communications and Marketing.






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