Jill Black delivers a speech at a podium at a Change Can't Wait event

For Alumna Jill Black, Opportunity Is Everything

It was late November 1977, and a 16-year-old from California was spending Thanksgiving with a family friend in Maryland. As the friends toured DC by car, they made a stop at American University. Immediately, the young woman was struck by a realization. 

“I said to my friend, ‘This is where I want to go to school,’” recalls Jill Black, SOC/BA ’83.

When the moment arrived, Black joined AU’s class of 1983 as a public relations major in the School of Communication (SOC). Throughout her time at 4400 Massachusetts Ave, she kindled friendships with peers from across the country and left her own stamp on professional opportunities.

Black cites a memorable internship at the newly opened Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown in which she helped launch the hotel’s PR department and created a brand-new position for herself. What was originally meant to be a one-year internship turned into four years of career building and a full-fledged program for other AU Eagles interested in hospitality and PR.

“It was really important to do the internship,” Black explains. “Having that life experience—and then having to write papers [for classes] on what I was doing—connected the business world to my academic world.”

Black also points to the kinetic civic energy of Washington, DC, during the late 70s and early 80s as a defining facet of her AU experience. She recalls being a student during the Iran hostage crisis and President Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. In Black’s words, “it was an incredible time” to witness the gears of government in motion.

These experiences, memories, and friendships—including two of her closest friends today—have stayed with Black in the years since graduation. Whether starting her own film and television PR firm when she moved back to LA or pivoting to her family’s real estate investment company, Black Equities Group, Black practices an entrepreneurial nimbleness that she traces to her time at AU.

Her advice to AU students interested in similarly industry-spanning careers is to regard “opportunity” in an active sense—as something to follow, to initiate, and to nurture. “Sometimes,” she says, “you have to go with opportunity.”

Believing in the Next Generation of Innovators

Black’s philanthropy and service at AU as an alumna stem from her philosophy of opportunity. She advocates for the futures of young people, having watched mentees in her own life boldly pursue and realize their dreams.

In particular, Black sees a special role for philanthropy in supporting aspiring nonprofit professionals. At AU, the Jill Black Endowed Fund provides scholarships to graduate students in the Master of Public Policy program in the School of Public Affairs (SPA). When asked about the fund’s focus on innovative or entrepreneurial approaches to public policy, Black says it’s about making career paths viable to more students. 

“A lot of students I know don’t think that [careers in nonprofits or non-governmental organizations] are possible or that they’re untouchable or that they can’t reach it. Merging those two [entrepreneurship and public policy] together gets attraction from people, because a lot of people go into public affairs, public policy, or nonprofits, and [find] there’s really not a lot of opportunity to make money,” says Black.

“But, when you put [entrepreneurship and public policy] together and you bring an entrepreneur in—they’re out of the box,” she continues. Black’s hope is that the scholarship taps into students’ potential as problem solvers, previously citing FedEx’s genesis in a college classroom as proof of what interdisciplinary thinking achieves. 

Black has seen firsthand how out-of-the-box thinking is essential to any organization’s toolkit. With a robust portfolio of board service, including for the Debbie Allen Dance Academy and AU’s Change Can’t Wait Campaign Committee, she is an expert in applying entrepreneurial mindsets toward social good.

“Jill Black’s dedication to philanthropy is discernible in everything she does,” says Courtney Surls, Vice President of University Advancement. “In her commitment to AU and service on the Campaign Committee, Jill has been resolute in her vision for new ways to promote student support, faculty research, and alumni engagement.”

One area of innovation Black prioritizes is wellness. She takes a holistic view of student well-being, considering the interplay of environmental factors—such as access to scholarships, creative outlets, or mind-body facilities—on young people’s mental health. Black sees this focus in action through AU’s forthcoming Student Thriving Complex (STC). The new STC will contain the Center for Well-Being Programs and Psychological Services, the Student Health Center, and a dedicated focus on preventative health activities, with opportunities ranging from yoga to healthy eating.

For Black, “service is spirit” is a guiding phrase in her life. An overarching goal in her philanthropy—whether in funding scholarships or making network introductions—boils down to ensuring students “know that there’s people who care about them.”

“You don’t realize what you get when you give,” reflects Black. “What more could you give a student than opportunity?”