Black History Month Spotlight – Student Examines Social Justice Impact of Musical Greats Etta James, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, and Aretha Franklin

In recognition of Black History Month, Union Institute & University is pleased to showcase the many contributions made by African Americans by featuring several Union alumni and others who are making an impact in their communities. This week’s spotlight is on Alyssa Harris, a student in the Master of Arts with a major in History and Culture. Read about Alyssa and her fascinating career as a blues singer and her plans for her second act.

African American blues singer Alyssa Harris is often the only “girl” in the room. She is building on that musical experience to explore the role that Black music has played in protests and movements and brings to her work reflections of the lives of musical greats Etta James, Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, and Aretha Franklin.

As a student in the Master of Arts program she is researching the social commentary, social justice, civil rights, and feminist underpinnings these famous singers faced and the legacies they leave.

“I relate to these celebrated ladies,” said Alyssa. “The music industry is a male-dominated culture. How did these extraordinary women navigate the waters? Even today, women are invalidated and treated differently.”

Alyssa has followed her dream as an artist and is now following her dream to enter academia.

“My ambition was to be a cruise ship entertainer. I have traveled the world, New Zealand, Panama, Europe, and the United States,” said Alyssa, who lives in Las Vegas. “I’ve had a wonderful first act. But now I want to put my stamp in the scholarly world. I want to be a community college lecturer or an advisor for college students.”

Alyssa chose Union to fulfill the second act. “I was very attracted to the flexibility the M.A. program offers as I travel for work and I needed a school that could work with my schedule.”

Professor Woden Teachout, says Alyssa encapsulates so much of what Union is about. “Alyssa is thoughtful and articulate and collegial. And she has done the first part of her coursework while working as a singer on a cruise line sailing around New Zealand!”

Alyssa credits her parents for her motivation. “I have been very fortunate to have my parents’ support in every endeavor that I take on. Not only do they believe in my dreams, they set a great example by being dedicated to their jobs, hobbies, and other things that they love – which  always reminds me to live my life with passion and zeal.”


It may still be a man’s world as James Brown sang, but Alyssa is striving for “Respect.”

For more than a half century, Union Institute & University has helped working adults realize their dreams of getting a degree so they can change the world. With online and low residency learning, you now have the flexibility you need to get the degree you want.
Be the world-change you’ve always wanted to be. Enroll now in the Master of Arts with a major in History and Culture.

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