There’s a door that’s always open behind the circulation desk of Smith Library.
It leads to the office of LaNita Williams, who’s served High Point University students for almost 30 years.
Hundreds of students like Aria Real have walked through the door over the years to find Williams working but always welcoming. Her soft-spoken nature and willingness to lend a hand have reminded Real, a senior from Baltimore, that HPU is her home away from home.
“Miss Nita is this beautiful person I can have great conversation with and feel at ease when I see her smile,” says Real, an interior design major and co-president of HPU’s Black Cultural Awareness. “She offered me a job in the library, advised our club and has been a mentor every step of the way.”
Williams’ open door policy reflects the commitment of HPU faculty and staff to serve as heroes, models and mentors to students. They follow the adage that HPU President Nido Qubein shares frequently – you can’t teach values. Instead, you model them.
“I always tell students that I’m in the library, and I’m here if you need me,” Williams says. “If you need to talk, come see me.”
And they do.
We Live, They Watch, They Learn
Williams knows that students at HPU are in the midst of transformation.
They’re not only gaining knowledge, they’re learning how to apply it in creative, relevant ways.
They’re pursuing research, career goals and learning to distinguish themselves on a global scale.
Williams, too, has been there. She’s seen transformation in her lifetime.
When she was a seventh grader in the 1970s, her junior high school was integrated, and the first white classmate she sat next to pulled their desk away from hers.
“I simply could not think that just because I was a different color, someone was not going to like me,” Williams says.
By graduation, Williams and the girl had become friends who’d chat when they passed by each other in the hallways.
Williams went on to receive her degree in English. In 1987, she became the circulation manager at High Point College’s Smith Library and helped students found the Black Culture Awareness Club on campus.
And of course, Williams witnessed the ongoing transformation that began at HPU in 2005. Qubein became the university’s seventh president that year, and a new sense of energy and purpose began to spread through campus.
“I remember when Dr. Qubein arrived, he encouraged staff members to ask themselves one question: ‘What can you do for our students?’” Williams says. “Since then, I have seen something new on this campus almost every day, but our focus has always remained on the students.”
She’s advised BCA since 1990, along with a plethora of student employees in the library. She’s impacted thousands more HPU students who use the library’s services on a 24/7 basis for research papers, projects, portfolio development and more.
Her student-driven work is paying dividends. BCA students have developed campus traditions over the years, including the Genesis Gospel Choir and the campus’s annual African American Heritage Service. Genesis is a traditional, African American choir that has serenaded audiences at major university events for 27 years. The heritage service, held every February for Black History Month, celebrates the roots of black worship services.
This year, in honor of Black History Month, BCA members also assisted area high school students, most of whom are the first in their families to pursue college, in completing federal financial aid forms for college.
She and her students have traveled around the country to visit places of historical significance, too, like the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta.
“We have done so much together,” she says. “I still encourage them to own their clubs and own their missions to line up speakers and plan big events. I want it to be theirs.”
The Endless Pursuit of Growth
Servant leadership is the way that Williams answered the question Qubein posed to faculty and staff more than a decade ago.
It starts with her open door in the library. She knows that mentorship can guide students who are in the midst of personal transformations on a campus that endlessly pursues growth.
By the time that graduate, they will have embraced that mindset. They’ll see obstacles and challenges as opportunities instead of roadblocks.
Like Real, who graduates in May with a list of accolades. In addition to paving new paths for BCA, Real and her classmate won a furniture design competition that Shermag Furniture brought to the HPU campus. Their victory took them to Canada for a tour of the company. It also presented opportunity to have their design manufactured and sold by major retailers like Babies R Us. Then Real earned her LEED Green Associate Designation, which positions her to work on LEED accredited projects and commercial or residential projects where sustainability is a goal.
“She has always put our education first, encouraging me to take time off from work at the library so I could study for a midterm or finish a big project,” says Real. “She has cared for me during my time at HPU. I’ll always remember that and the conversations we’ve had.”
“Whatever I can do for students,” Williams says, “I want to do.”