Classes are under way here at Wingate and it’s been blessedly normal on campus for the past few days. Students moving in – again or for the first time – renewing and making friendships, buying books, beginning the routine again.
I say “blessedly” because the beginning of this school year – normally a time of anticipation, excitement and renewal – has taken place in the aftermath of shock and tragedy.
Two of our incoming freshmen were killed and two others injured on Aug. 14 in an auto accident here in Union County. The students, who had arrived in early August to participate in a special academic enrichment program, were on their way to one of those “ropes course” leadership exercises.
Mi’Shawn Miller of Fayetteville and Arielle Parker of Greensboro were both 18. One of the two injured students still remains hospitalized. It’s not what you expect young people to have to deal with as a school year begins.
Our opening weekend for freshmen generally begins with a chapel service on Sunday morning anyway, but this year it was turned into a memorial service. I’m glad, as it gave faculty members like me who never got to know these students an opportunity to do so.
Dr. Heather McDivitt, a religion professor who had been leading the 21 students in this early program, gave a heartfelt portrait of the two students who were killed.
Miller was full of energy and wanted a career in business. McDivitt drew laughter from the audience despite the somber occasion with her description of how at the end of each evening he would shower, then sleep in the clothes he would wear the next day. He didn’t want to waste a minute. Parker had a beautiful singing voice and wanted to be a school psychologist.
“I can tell you they had huge dreams and had the ability to achieve them,” McDivitt told the audience, which included the rest of Wingate’s record freshman class of over 600 students. “We can honor them by working as hard as we can to achieve our own dreams.”
That’s the beauty of this place, or any college campus, to me. It’s a place for dreams and discovery – finding out who you are and what you’re meant to do. And right now, the horizon is limitless.
So are the opportunities to learn something, if students will just take advantage. As a professor, I know that not all of us will reach everyone who sits in our classroom. But what I’d like to tell every student is that there’s probably somebody here who can talk with you about new ideas, or even introduce you to the fact that such things exist.
As I noted in a previous blog post, one of the books I’m currently reading is North Toward Home (1967), an autobiography by author and journalist Willie Morris. In it, he describes leaving his Mississippi home to attend the University of Texas – now one of the country’s great universities, but in the early 1950s, a school still trying, like its students, to find its identity.
The University of Texas had, in its halting, unsure and often frivolous way to teach those of us with good minds and high school diplomas that we were intelligent human beings, with minds and hearts of our own that we might learn to call our own. That there were some things, many things – ideas, values, choices of actions – worth committing one’s self to and fighting for – that a man in some instances might become morally committed to honoring every manifestation of individual conscience and courage.
I don’t know of a better description of what should happen at a university. But I do know this.
It’s not my job to tell them what to think. And I’d even rather let them eventually figure out on their own how to get where they want to go. But if I can do something that helps them with that journey, I think I’ve done OK.
May every student and teacher who reads this have a great year of growth and learning.