December Extraordinary Leader: ‘I Felt Like I Belonged’

Mar 25th, 2021

December Extraordinary Leader: ‘I Felt Like I Belonged’

Aleah Hayes has a favorite spot in the Smith Library – second floor, along the back wall, third desk from the right in front of a floor-to-ceiling window.

She’ll sit there for hours, studying. She likes the coziness of it, the warm wood, the volumes of books around her, the quiet of a library as she dives into subjects involving her two majors, philosophy and psychology.

That solitude has worked for her. Hayes, a junior from Los Angeles, is a member of four honor societies. She’s also president of the Volunteer Center and vice president of Black Cultural Awareness. And she’s a seasoned researcher, an HPU Diversity Mentor and historian of Alpha Lambda Delta, the freshman honor society.

She’s now one of two Extraordinary Leaders for the month of December at High Point University.

She found her confidence at HPU. That made all the difference.


‘I Felt Like I Belonged’

Hayes is the only child of Edee and Robert Hayes.

Hayes grew up in her mom’s shadow.

Back in their hometown of Harrisburg, North Carolina, she’d often hear her mom’s friends say, “Oh, you’re Little Edee,” or she’d run into people and hear, “That’s right. You’re Edee Hayes’ daughter.”

She loved that because she loves her mom. But for years, she felt she didn’t have her own identity. A shy girl with the quiet voice, Hayes stayed in the background of her more outgoing mom, a plant manager at PPG Aerospace.  

That changed at HPU.

She came to an Open House with her dad, Robert, an aerospace engineer. She had visited other universities and listened to her share of admission counselors.

But as she sat in an auditorium at Congdon Hall of Health Sciences, she felt HPU was different.

“We were in the building with the big DNA sculpture, and my admissions counselor told me, ‘You belong here,’” she says. “I felt he meant it, and right then and there, we connected. I felt like they were invested in me.

 “I felt like I belonged,” she says. “I did the work to get here, and the fact that they were talking about having a campus of people with different backgrounds and ethnicities and gender, I saw that as steps of inclusion.”.

Before she and her dad left campus, Hayes committed to HPU.

“My mom told me, ‘You’ll know when you’re going to the right college,’ and I felt it,” Hayes says. “Meeting the counselor confirmed my feelings.”


Hayes’ ‘Miss Frizzle’  

Hayes was a freshman when she took Dr. Amy MacArthur’s Biomedical Ethics class. In class, MacArthur brought up “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the 2011 book about the Black tobacco farmer whose cells were harvested after her death and led to medical discoveries that helped save lives.

Lacks never gave consent to have her cells used for medicine, and class discussion revolved around why Lacks wouldn’t give consent for something that could be seen as a lifesaver.

Hayes, who was sitting in the front row, raised her hand.

“It’s because she was an African-American woman,” Hayes responded.

Hayes’ perspective led the class to consider that Lacks’ circumstances may have caused her to have a legitimate mistrust of medicine. That one comment, MacArthur says, opened everyone’s eyes and showed the importance of classroom dialogue and the growing confidence of a shy freshman.

Hayes stands with five of the Guatemalan children she played with every day during her service-learning trip in the fall of 2019.

“Oh gosh, she’s become so much more confident,” says MacArthur, a visiting assistant professor of philosophy. “You see it in her work and her depth of understanding. She’s drawing connections, and she wants to make things around her better.”

Hayes now sees MacArthur as her own “Miss Frizzle,” the character who makes learning fun in the animated TV show “Magic School Bus.” Hayes has taken two more classes with MacArthur, and her instruction has convinced her to major in philosophy.

Last semester, in MacArthur’s Modern Philosophy class, MacArthur brought up what had happened in in her Biomedical Ethics class two years before.

“You know what, we all have room to learn,” she told her students. “And Aleah, you taught our class something a couple of years ago.”

MacArthur didn’t say anything else. But Hayes knew.

“I shared that with my students because I wanted them to know we all have room to learn,” MacArthur says. “Even someone in authority, like a professor. Always give yourself room to learn, and when others are wrong about something, challenge them.”


The Power of Discovery

On a Sunday before Thanksgiving 2019, Hayes went to Duke University to present her research on the social media influences of female politicians. She had worked for months with Dr. Martin Kifer, chair of HPU’s political science department, and she had practiced her delivery for weeks.

But as she stood in Duke’s gallery in her new tweed jacket, she felt the pull of nerves. It was her first conference, and she worried about talking to countless strangers.

Hayes stands with an elderly Guatemalan woman and the stove Hayes helped build. The woman is holding a photo of Hayes’ Aunt Angela, one of the benefactors that enabled Hayes to make the trip.

Up walked Dr. Joanne Altman, the founding director of HPU’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Works program.

“It’s not going to be as bad as you think it is,” Altman told Hayes. “Just breathe.”

Nearly two hours later, after talking to dozens of people, Hayes knew Altman was right.

“All you have to do,” Hayes says, “is get your first words out.”

Her presentation at Duke followed her trip to Guatemala with the Volunteer Center, a program that offers students service opportunities.

She and 10 other HPU students joined members of a High Point church and flew to Guatemala. It was Hayes’ first plane trip outside the country, and she went to build stoves out of cinder blocks.

She had never done that.

They spent a week there. They lived in a church, woke up to a rooster’s crow and traveled to a rural section of the country to build stoves by riding in the back of a truck.

Hayes helped build six to 12 stoves a day. Hayes and others would use cinder blocks, bricks, wood and an aluminum chimney to build a stove seven feet high.

These stoves were built for houses open to the outside. They didn’t have four walls. They also didn’t have indoor plumbing, clean water or electricity. The families who lived there slept on thin mattresses on the floor and cooked the pigs, chickens and turkeys they kept nearby.

Hayes didn’t know Spanish, making it a little difficult to communicate. But she knew what the families felt when she and the others came.


Hayes was, too.

“I’m a lot stronger than I think,” she says. “I’ve never done that in my life, but I did it.”


Finding Purpose at HPU

Hayes stands in the Duke University gallery getting ready to present her research on social media influence of female politicians in November 2019.

Hayes grew to love the work of the Volunteer Center, and when the group’s senior leaders graduated last spring, she stepped up to become president. Last semester, she and the five members from her executive board brainstormed ways to thank what she calls the “unsung heroes” at HPU.

 They came up with an idea of sending Power Point presentations with personal messages on 20 slides to professors and the teams of people working in dining and security as well as wearing the orange T-shirts of HPU’s Clean Team.

“During COVID, they have kept us safe,” she says.

The move surprised many who received the virtual thank you. They were touched and humbled. They told Hayes so. She and her team’s efforts reminded her of a quote she found from Scott Adams, the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip.

“Remember, there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness,” Adams once said. “Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”

“That made me feel better,” she says. “What we were doing had a purpose.”



A Leader Emerges

Hayes met these seven children following a Sunday church service on her first day in Guatemala.

Hayes always wanted to be leader of a club that uplifted her own Black culture. And when she came to HPU and saw the university had two clubs like that –– Black Cultural Awareness and Black Student Union –– she knew she was in the right place.

This former shy freshman who barely said a word in class is hardly like that anymore.

She thanks HPU for that.

“I don’t want to be cheesy, but HPU has made me a more confident, assured leader,” she says. “I have the power to do anything I want. I have faculty who care about me, and I have a strong sense of belonging. I’ve been here three years, and I feel like this is home.”