Orange Love

Syracuse University not only provides students with a world-class education, but lifelong friendships, career preparation, and opportunities for leadership development. And in some cases, a life partner. In celebration of Valentine’s Day, four alumni couples share their Syracuse love stories.

Rafael Balbi ’11 says Joannie Diaz ’11

Rafael Balbi ’11 says Joannie Diaz ’11 first caught his eye during the fall of his sophomore year in his introductory economics class. Unfortunately, she dropped the class before the two could meet.

But as luck would have it, they crossed paths again in the spring through activities of their respective Greek organizations—Lambda Sigma Upsilon for him and Omega Phi Beta for her. They became friends and within months began dating.

Balbi says he knew Diaz was “the one” from the beginning. Only 19, Diaz was smitten but wondered if she was too young to have already found her life partner.

But the couple had similar backgrounds and aspirations. Both first-generation college students, they were both academically focused in pursuit of successful futures. They understood each other’s challenges. Neither had much extra spending money, so the Syracuse University campus played a significant role in their courtship. “A lot of our dates were doing things like having picnics on the Quad,” says Diaz. “We spent a lot of time together studying in Bird Library.”

As seniors, they spent a semester in Madrid together through Syracuse Abroad, an experience that cemented their relationship. “It was where we first exchanged ‘I love yous,” she says. “We made our first friends as a couple as opposed to the friends we’d each made on our own back on campus.”

After graduation, both secured jobs in New York City, Balbi working in technology and Diaz as a trading analyst at JPMorgan Chase. Having met so young, it’s not surprising that the couple did take time apart. But they found their way back to each other, becoming engaged in November 2016 and married in June 2018. At their wedding, their many college friends in attendance posed for a photo with a Syracuse University flag.

Today, the couple continues to live in New York City, where Diaz works as the diversity and inclusion client partner for Bloomberg and Balbi as the principal product manager for Vimeo. They say their shared Syracuse experience continues to play a big role in their lives. “Most of our closest friends are still our friends from Syracuse,” says Balbi. “We’re now progressing together through new phases of our lives—careers, getting married, some are having kids. The Syracuse connection is no myth.”

Wayne Horton ’07, L’11 and Tiffany Nicholson-Horton ’06

Wayne Horton remembers his first-year move-in day in 2003 like it was yesterday. Having completed Summer College, coming back to the Syracuse University campus felt like greeting an old friend. He walked into Day Hall full of confidence but was stopped in his tracks by the vision before him.

“The most beautiful woman was sitting at the check-in table, surrounded by an orange aura of light,” says Horton. “I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since. I was rendered speechless.”

“I think it was just sun coming through the window,” counters Tiffany Nicholson-Horton, the woman at the table.

As fate would have it, Nicholson-Horton was the resident advisor on Horton’s floor. And while he wanted to respect her role, Horton couldn’t deny his attraction and used every opportunity to create a chance encounter.

“Each time I got off the elevator, there was Wayne sitting in the lounge with a book,” says Nicholson-Horton.

The two began hanging out. By November, he took her home for a weekend with his family. Nicholson-Horton consulted with her resident director about the appropriateness of dating a resident. He told her it was a “grey area.”

Quietly, the two continued to keep company. “I’m sure there are people who suspected we were together, but I wanted to respect her authority and not get her into trouble,” Horton says.

All that changed the following year. “We could be official. We could hold hands on the Quad,” Horton says.

Despite their bond, they were not inseparable. “I was really all about studying and preparing for a career,” says Nicholson-Horton, who majored in television-radio-film at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and served as an RA throughout college. “Wayne was Mr. SU.”

But their courtship never ended. Nicholson-Horton moved to Los Angeles after graduation to begin a career in television and film production. Horton, a political science major and  SU cheerleader for three years, served as SA president in his senior year, then began law school at the Syracuse University College of Law. Visiting Nicholson-Horton piqued his interest in the entertainment industry, and he focused his studies on entertainment law.

Horton proposed the day before his law school graduation, then followed his fiancé to Los Angeles, where the couple still lives and works. Nicholson-Horton is executive vice president and head of development for Sweet July Productions, owned by Ayesha Curry. She’s currently focused on About Last Night, an upcoming celebrity game show that debuts this month on HBOMax. Horton is a senior production and development executive at Hartbeat Productions, where he develops projects for comedian/actor Kevin Hart. The couple has three sons: Jaxon (9), Jett (almost 2), and Joah (5 months).

“We’re really grateful that we’ve known each other the majority of our lives,” says Horton. “We’ve been best friends for a long time, which has allowed our relationship to grow and flourish.”

“We met when we were dreamers—dreaming about what we wanted our futures to be,” adds Nicholson-Horton. “Now we’re on the other end and actually making those things happen with the added bonus of our beautiful boys. It’s a rare thing.”

Akima Rogers ’94 and Col. Pia Rogers ’98, G’01, L’01

Living in suburban Washington, D.C., Pia and Akima Rogers were aware of many Syracuse University alumni of color in their area, but they never got together. In 2009, they hosted the first DC Orange and Blue summer barbecue with 60 guests at their home.

In the years since, DC Orange and Blue has taken on a life of its own, with a membership upwards of 400. The summer barbecue, now held at a nearby state park, attracts alums from far beyond the DC area.

It’s fitting that Pia and Akima met at a similar event. It was the summer of 1999. Akima came up to Syracuse from Boston for the annual Omega Psi Phi summer fish fry, held at the home of Rick Wright G’93. Pia, an Alpha Kappa Alpha who had just finished the first year of a dual law/MPA degree offered by the Syracuse College of Law and Maxwell School, was there with some friends. Both were on career tracks and not looking for a relationship. But . . . they hit it off. Akima invited Pia to Boston to visit, telling her to bring a friend to make it more casual.

Not long after, she and a girlfriend road-tripped to Boston. That was the start of a three-year long-distance relationship. “I made that five-hour drive to Syracuse as often as I could,” Akima recalls. “Sometimes through snowstorms.”

This was before cell phones and social media so staying connected took some work. “We would talk on the phone at weird times,” he says. “Our relationship just kept growing.”

Building their foundation as a long-distance couple has served them well. Married since 2002, the two have lived in different cities for much of that time. Pia is in the military. She earned her undergraduate Syracuse University degree from the Newhouse School of Public Communications on an Army ROTC scholarship. She was able to defer her commitment to attend law school and has been a member of the Army Judge Advocate Corps ever since. Currently she is a colonel, stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, where she is the staff judge advocate supervising a staff of 120.

Akima studied social science and African American history at Syracuse and later earned a Master of Arts degree from Boston College. He’s forged a career in higher education administration, currently serving as director of academic initiatives at Montgomery College in Maryland. The couple maintains their home in Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, where Akima lives.

The longest the two have lived together full time is 4.5 years, early in their marriage when Pia was stationed at Fort Meade. Posts at Fort McNair, the Pentagon and in nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, also made time together possible. But for now, living apart is their normal. Their two children—a 14-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter—currently live with Pia. “We’ve considered other arrangements, but logistically, it’s easier for one person to do the traveling and the person that’s easiest for is me,” says Akima, who can frequently be found in a Zoom meeting while sitting in an airport. “I’ve logged a lot of miles on Greyhound buses traveling across the country,” he quipped.

Although the two were not undergraduates at the same time, Syracuse continues to play a big role in their lives. They say having attended the university consecutively over a span of 11 years has resulted in a wider Syracuse network. In addition to being active in his fraternity, Akima was a resident advisor, a member of the marching band and, as a twin, was well known on campus. He’s currently a member of the Multicultural Advancement Advisory Council. As an undergrad, Pia participated in ROTC and her sorority, and also served as Otto the Orange for four years. She also has friends from graduate school at Maxwell and the College of Law.

“We have a lot of people rooting for us,” says Pia. “We not only have Orange love between us, but I feel like Orange love surrounds us.”

María D. Meléndez ’89 and Alan “Jim” Hinkley ’90

On September 11, 2001, María D. Meléndez was at work at her law firm on the 56th floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower 1. She was fortunate to make it out of the building just as Tower 2 began coming down.

In the chaos, she began walking, thinking only about her husband, Jim Hinkley, and their two young boys, then aged three and 8 months. But with cell phone signals jammed, she couldn’t reach him, or anyone else she tried. Finally, from a payphone, she was able to connect with a dear friend she’d met while Syracuse University students. “I walked all the way to Central Park, where she found me and took me home with her,” says Meléndez. “She had been able to contact Jim, and we were reunited later that night.”

For many years, Meléndez couldn’t talk about the experience. “To think about missing all the joy and love we’ve experienced was too painful,” she says.

That it was a Syracuse friend who reunited Meléndez and Hinkley was fitting. The couple met as members of the Syracuse University Marching Band. Meléndez played saxophone and Hinkley played trumpet. One day during practice, the band director moved Meléndez out of her section to fill a hole in the trumpet line. “When you’re making formations, you can’t have a hole,” Hinkley explains.

The 5’4” Meléndez found herself sandwiched between Hinkley, who is 6’5”, and his nearly-as-tall buddy. “I took a lot of ribbing,” she recalls.

A self-proclaimed introvert from a small-town in Pennsylvania, Hinkley was attracted to the Brooklyn-native’s disarming personality. “Maria is so outgoing that she endears herself to everyone around her,” he says. “Her smile lights up a room.”

Meléndez was intrigued by Hinkley’s background, so different from her own.

By November, they were dating. Marching band segued into basketball season. Their experiences traveling to play at games with the Sour Sitrus Society cemented their relationship.

After graduation, Meléndez began Albany Law School. Hinkley followed her and got a job in banking in Albany. They became engaged during Meléndez’s last year and were married in Hinkley’s hometown.

Meléndez took a job in New York City, where Hinkley enrolled in graduate school to study accounting, then worked for a public accounting firm. They had two sons. When the oldest was eight, Hinkley put his career on pause to stay home with the boys. Meléndez’s career was on a fast track. In 2002, she became the first Latina named partner at the New York office of Sidley Austin, a law firm with more than 1,900 lawyers in 20 offices worldwide. In 2020, she stopped practicing law to become the firm’s chief diversity officer.

More than three decades after graduating, the couple says their connection to Syracuse University remains an integral part of their lives.

Hinkley comes from a long line of Syracuse University alumni on both sides of his family. His parents met as undergraduates and married at Hendrick’s Chapel. Having met Meléndez there, “Syracuse has a special place in my heart,” he says.

When Meléndez was presented with the George Arents Award during Orange Central 2021, many of the couple’s college friends came to the ceremony. “We relived a lot of our time at the University together, which are very fond memories,” she says.

And while their sons attended college elsewhere, both feel a legacy to Syracuse through their parents, especially on game days.

“I came to Syracuse with zero interest in college sports,” says Meléndez. “But four years of marching/pep band made a real sports fan out of me. I tell Jim he’s the luckiest man alive.”