Crew Phi Crew
In the mid-1990s, a group of talented young students arrived on campus determined to succeed while enjoying university life to the fullest. As Black women attending a majority white college, opportunities to build close friendships were fewer, but these 10 women formed a lasting bond and became a crew for life.
By Jenny West Rozelle ’00 | Illustration by Chloe Zola
When you ask the women of Crew Phi Crew what has held them together for over 25 years, the answer is sisterhood — the kind that comes through friendship, dedication, shared experiences and lots of love.
Most of Crew Phi Crew’s 10 members — five from Will Rice College, four from Wiess College and one from Jones College — met during O-Week or while spending time in the John and Anne Grove between Will Rice and Hanszen. “We would hang out when we saw each other outside,” said Chaundra Frank ’00.
“We met when we were 17 or 18 years old, and when we got together, we didn’t have any idea that here we would be, over 20 years later, still friends, still able to pick up anytime we meet.”
Many of the Crew are originally from Houston. While they were familiar with Rice, “We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” said Frank. “Rice was a little difficult for some of us. Our group was what kept a lot of us sane and gave us the courage and the confidence to keep going when we could have easily fallen to the wayside.” When they got together, they could forget about papers, exams and problem sets and simply enjoy the relationships they were building.
Creating a Crew
Eventually, these undergraduate women commented that their group needed a name. Rice may not have a Greek system, but the idea of sororities served as inspiration to come up with their own good-humored play on words: Crew Phi Crew. Although it was said in passing, the name stuck and the sentiment around it grew.
“The reason we chose this name specifically is because we have a sisterly bond, much like sorority sisters,” said Neema Jones Stephens ’99. “Several of us now have families of our own, and we refer to the children as ‘Crew babies’ and ‘Future Owls.’”
The group was, and is, more than just a name — it was a source of strength for some of these young women at a time in their lives that was full of changes and challenges. One challenge was something that the majority of Rice students in the 1990s didn’t face or fully understand. “A lot of African Americans I knew wanted to graduate and get out of there and never come back,” said Frank. “We had a different experience back then. There were very few African Americans on campus, and I think that was the connection [for our group], just to look up and see someone who looks like you and has something similar in their background.”
For a while after graduation, although Frank maintained her bond with Crew Phi Crew, she didn’t return to Rice at all, despite living in Houston. “I didn’t go back for years. Then Brandy [Hays Morrison ’98] came to us as a group and said, ‘Let’s go back to school,’” Frank recalled. Morrison received her MBA from Rice’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business in 2005 and encouraged her friends to do the same. “Several people in our close network of friends decided to go back. She really is the person in our group who is going to make everybody elevate.”
Frank graduated in fall 2022 with an MBA from Jones School and served as the inaugural president of the Rice Business Student Association for MBA@Rice and president of Rice Business Board Fellows. In a full-circle way, she was also part of the Black Business Student Association — Morrison was one of the founders. “It’s that kind of thing that I love about our group,” said Frank, who is executive vice president of finance at the Houston Botanic Garden in addition to founder and CEO of nonprofit Lake Houston Youth Sports Association. “They’re a powerful group.”
Crew members have held many other leadership positions at Rice as well. AJ Moore Beard ’01 and Morrison have served on the Association of Rice Alumni Board. Morrison is a current member of the Rice Board of Trustees, and Kimberly Manney Smith ’00 is on the Friends of Fondren Library Board of Directors. Shaquandra Monette Roberson Porter ’00 is in the Rice Athletics Hall of Fame. While undergraduates, many of them were active in the Rice chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers — Morrison served as president and Smith as vice president — as well as the Black Student Association and ADVANCE (Advocating Diversity and Career Exploration).
Still, Crew Phi Crew hasn’t forgotten the lighthearted fun they had in their Rice days, and that remains part of the joy. Stephens, the national medical director for health equity at Cigna, remembers their first — and last — NOD. “After a trip to Target (pronounced ‘Tar-Jay’) for cute new pajamas, we were dolled up and ready to party. When we arrived, we quickly realized we were overdressed! We stayed for a brief while and laughed the entire time.”
Many other happy memories come to mind for the Crew, including spring break in Galveston, where they spent the whole time on The Strand and never saw the beach; Friday night dance parties in their rooms as they listened to the music blaring from the Sid Richardson College speakers and made up dance moves they still remember to this day; moving off campus and beginning a game night tradition of playing Spades or Taboo; and going to parties at the University of Houston or Texas Southern University. They even learned to belly dance together at Porter’s bachelorette party.
Angelique Woods ’99, director of shared services for capital assets and accounts payable at Enbridge, cherishes the memory of the 2016 Association of Rice University Black Alumni Blueprint for Excellence Gala: Celebrating 50 Years of Black Undergraduate Life at Rice. “Even though we are all professional women now, that night, we quickly slipped back into our old crazy antics, teasing and joking with each other as if no time had passed since we were in college.”
Constant Support System
Thanks to technology and group chats, Crew Phi Crew continues to communicate nearly every day, and their friendship has helped them navigate many life experiences. They have been there for each other during some of the most difficult points in their lives, including the deaths of family members and the cancer diagnoses of a couple of group members. Without even having to call, they show up for each other.
Smith, who is a consulting director at Athenian Group, a managing and consulting company, echoed this sentiment. “As friends, it is the moments that make us truly human that strengthen our bond, such as the many celebrations — weddings, babies, marathons, a good diagnosis and a successful surgery — and our troubled waters, to sum up as loss. We are friends through thick and thin, victory and obstacle.”
Morrison added, “No matter what happens in life, they are my constant support system.”
Crew members, all of whom have earned graduate degrees in their respective fields, also support each other through job transitions, discuss how to facilitate career moves and frequently act as sounding boards for each other. Many of the women are leaders in their companies in occupations spanning consulting, entrepreneurship, medicine, law and accounting — and some of them hold positions at multiple companies.
“The Crew connects with me on every level: as a Black woman, a mother, an athlete, a daughter, a wife, an engineer, a leader and a friend,” said Beard, the chief operating officer of Lone Oak Farm and Technology. “I have been able to connect with someone in the Crew to help me through professional hurdles, relationship advice, staying active and healthy, celebrating triumph and failure because they reflect me in all the ways that I am unique.”
Iron Sharpening Iron
Morrison lives near Washington, D.C., where she is the vice president of strategic growth at Pluribus Digital, but she returns to Houston four times every year for Rice Board of Trustees meetings. Since most of the Crew now live in the Houston area, they consider it mandatory to get together when she comes in. “We are a family, and when we come together, it is refreshing and empowering. Iron sharpening iron,” said Porter, who is an attorney in the office of Dick Dawson Attorney at Law as well as a youth pastor at Purfect Love Fellowship Church. “We can exhale from life’s demands and celebrate each other’s accomplishments and the positive impact we are making on those around us. We have the utmost respect, love and support for one another.”
The Crew has evolved over the years in how they spend their time together. They once took trips, had spa days and went to concerts, but now as much as ever, they appreciate the time spent together enjoying good food and good conversation. Shanita Woodard ’00, product marketing leader for Honeywell Connected Industrials and founder and owner of PICC Design, fondly remembers some of their meals as young alumni.
“Our potluck get-togethers were times to reconnect, to hug, share, dance, laugh and remember the experiences we’ve had together. Those were times when we could just unplug from the world around us and appreciate the joy and closeness of friendship.” Over the years, as friends moved away and back again, the potlucks changed to dinners out, but as Woodard said, “the warmth of fellowship with girlfriends remained the same.” At this point in their lives, the Crew will often reserve a whole room in a restaurant, where they stay for hours to catch up.
Eleisha Nelson-Reed ’99, the executive director of the Powell Foundation, a philanthropic organization, said, “What I appreciate most about this group is that there is still a down-to-earth quality where we can get together and have a tear-inducing laugh about random silliness as if we were still 19 years old and, in the next breath, have rich and nuanced conversations informed by our experiences and world views.” Eventually they may invite spouses and kids to their gatherings, but so far, they prefer to keep their get-togethers among the Crew.
“I cherish the sisterhood that this group of phenomenal women has represented as we continue our post-Rice lives,” said Kadian McIntosh ’00, a physician assistant at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “We are Crew Phi Crew for life!”
Do you have a story of an enduring Rice friendship through the ages? Tell us a little bit about your group and how it’s changed over the years by writing to email@example.com.