Pioneers for Future Generations

Dec 12th, 2012 | By | Category: Alumni Profile, Features

BY: There­sa Gawlas Med­off

To be on a cam­pus these days is to wit­ness a col­lege more inte­grat­ed than most in this coun­try: nation­al­ly, 14 per­cent of col­lege stu­dents are African Amer­i­can; Wesley’s minor­i­ty pop­u­la­tion well exceeds that. That wasn’t always the case, as alum­nae Glo­ria James ’73, the Rev­erend Char­lotte Nichols ’73 and Peg­gi (Young) Wat­son ’73 well know. Back in the fall of 1971 when these three women arrived in Dover, they were among just 10 African Amer­i­cans in their class. This was a time when the coun­try was in turmoil—when civ­il rights, women’s rights and the Viet­nam War were all at the forefront—and these pio­neers were recruit­ed by Wes­ley as it sought to inte­grate the cam­pus more ful­ly and to bring the ben­e­fits of a Methodist col­lege edu­ca­tion to a broad­er swath of the pop­u­la­tion.

Peg­gi (Young) Wat­son ’73, the Rev­erend Char­lotte Nichols ’73 and Glo­ria James ’73

James and Wat­son were fresh­man-year room­mates, and James roomed with Nichols in their sec­ond year. All three women went on to achieve con­sid­er­able aca­d­e­m­ic and pro­fes­sion­al suc­cess since grad­u­at­ing from Wes­ley, and they have con­tin­ued to deep­en their rela­tion­ship with God and the Unit­ed Methodist Church. Wes­ley, they say, played an impor­tant part in their growth and devel­op­ment— intel­lec­tu­al­ly, spir­i­tu­al­ly and social­ly.

They are grate­ful, as well, for the friend­ship they devel­oped with each oth­er while at Wes­ley, a friend­ship that con­tin­ues to this day. “We have the kind of rela­tion­ship where it doesn’t mat­ter how fre­quent­ly or infre­quent­ly we see each oth­er, it’s like we were togeth­er just yes­ter­day,” Nichols says. That friend­ship, she adds, was forged in part because they found sup­port in each oth­er while they nav­i­gat­ed the chal­lenges of being a minor­i­ty at Wes­ley in the ear­ly ’70s.

It wasn’t always easy to be among the few black faces on cam­pus in the ear­ly 1970s, the women admit. “There was a lot of curios­i­ty about us among the oth­er stu­dents, many of whom had had lit­tle pre­vi­ous expo­sure to African Amer­i­cans,” Wat­son says, and part­ly because the school was so small, it felt at times like they lived under a micro­scope. “But we were open to dis­cus­sions. Par­tic­u­lar­ly with our friends we would have dis­cus­sions about how we were the same and dif­fer­ent,” she adds.

Wat­son calls her­self a join­er. She sang in the Wes­ley choir and was active in plan­ning stu­dent activ­i­ties designed to unite the cam­pus. She recalls two activ­i­ties that were par­tic­u­lar­ly suc­cess­ful in that respect, a tal­ent show and an all-cam­pus art cre­ation par­ty after which the stu­dent-paint­ed can­vas­es were donat­ed to the Col­lege. “A lot of peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ed in both of these events. They real­ly pro­mot­ed com­mu­ni­ty because they were inclu­sive of every­body,” Wat­son says.

James, a self-described army brat who had lived through­out the south and South­west, says that the bla­tant racism she expe­ri­enced while grow­ing up had per­suad­ed her that she should go to a black col­lege. When she was offered a schol­ar­ship by Wes­ley, how­ev­er, her par­ents encour­aged her to try the school. As a high school senior, she was skep­ti­cal. “My Mary­land high school had been recent­ly deseg­re­gat­ed,” she recalls, “and I had peo­ple there I thought were my good friends. They act­ed like friends in class, but when they saw me at social events or on week­ends, they would pre­tend they didn’t know me, and that hurt.”

The stu­dents at Wes­ley, she says, were dif­fer­ent, and she social­ized with blacks and whites alike inside and out­side the class­room. “I loved Wes­ley,” James says. “Peo­ple in gen­er­al were friend­ly, and I liked the small, per­son­al­ized envi­ron­ment.” The small envi­ron­ment, she adds, encour­aged inte­gra­tion much more so than did the large, pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty envi­ron­ment in which her sis­ter found her­self.

Nichols says her time at Wes­ley was a com­bi­na­tion of the best of times and the worst of times, but that if she had to do it all over again, she would “absolute­ly 100 per­cent” choose Wes­ley. “I knew that Wes­ley was inten­tion­al­ly try­ing to become an inclu­sive col­lege,” she says. “Attend­ing Wes­ley was very much a part of my call­ing and my jour­ney. I am still informed in the way I min­is­ter and how I val­ue oth­er peo­ple by cer­tain things I learned and heard at Wes­ley,” she adds. She par­tic­u­lar­ly cred­its then Chap­lain Ed Wilkins with being a guide and men­tor as she worked through her own reli­gious growth and the chal­lenges of being a minor­i­ty at a time when the Unit­ed States was grap­pling with equal rights and inte­gra­tion. She learned from Wilkins, she says, how lead­ers sup­port those who are deal­ing with issues of racism and reli­gious ques­tion­ing, and she was able to draw on those lessons years lat­er when she her­self worked in cam­pus min­istry at anoth­er col­lege.

All three women came from fam­i­lies that val­ued edu­ca­tion, and their own dri­ve to suc­ceed led them to con­tin­ue their edu­ca­tion after earn­ing their asso­ciate degrees at Wes­ley, which was then a two-year col­lege. Each of the women con­tin­ued on to earn a bachelor’s and mul­ti­ple grad­u­ate degrees. Nichols received a bachelor’s degree from Sal­is­bury Uni­ver­si­ty and both a mas­ter of reli­gious edu­ca­tion and a mas­ter of divin­i­ty from Wes­ley The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Wat­son earned a B.A. from Boston Uni­ver­si­ty. She holds a master’s degree in edu­ca­tion from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty and attend­ed grad­u­ate school in clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gy at Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty. After grad­u­at­ing from Welles­ley Col­lege, James earned a master’s from Sal­is­bury State and a doc­tor­ate from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Delaware.

Though the three forged a strong friend­ship while at Wes­ley, Wat­son says, they all had very dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. “Glo­ria was more out­spo­ken and out­go­ing, more will­ing to talk about cul­tur­al and philo­soph­i­cal issues,” she says. “I was more of a prac­ti­cal prob­lem-solver.” Nichols was always heav­i­ly involved in church mat­ters. But the dif­fer­ences were less impor­tant, Wat­son says, than what they shared: the same core val­ues of hon­esty, fam­i­ly and hard work. “We all respect­ed each oth­er immensely—and still do,” she adds.

Their paths after Wes­ley have tak­en the women in sep­a­rate direc­tions, but all three entered careers that enable them to help others—Nichols as a Unit­ed Methodist min­is­ter, James as a pub­lic health admin­is­tra­tor, and Wat­son as a child psy­chol­o­gist.

Nichols has con­tin­ued in her career to be a pio­neer for women and blacks, mak­ing his­to­ry in 1990 as the first African Amer­i­can woman appoint­ed dis­trict super­in­ten­dent in the U.S. Unit­ed Methodist Church. The appoint­ment also marked the first time a woman was appoint­ed dis­trict super­in­ten­dent in the Penin­su­la-Delaware Con­fer­ence, which serves Delaware and the East­ern Shore of Mary­land. Nichols was appoint­ed to a sec­ond term as dis­trict super­in­ten­dent in 2005 and now also serves as dean of the cab­i­net with addi­tion­al respon­si­bil­i­ties on behalf of the Bish­op.

Her work takes her on the road through­out the East­ern Shore to vis­it the 80 pas­tors and 130 church­es under her purview. They include con­gre­ga­tions both large and small, in cities like Sal­is­bury and Ocean City as well as in the East­ern Shore’s many rur­al areas, includ­ing three church­es on Smith Island acces­si­ble only by boat.

Nichols was pre­pared for the min­istry in part, she says, by her own rich spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences at Wes­ley Col­lege, which includ­ed manda­to­ry chapel, guest speak­ers and spir­i­tu­al retreats and the wise coun­sel­ing of the chap­lain and admin­is­tra­tors.

James says that the aca­d­e­m­ic foun­da­tion she received at Wes­ley pre­pared her well for her future endeav­ors. “Wes­ley taught me good study skill habits. It also taught me that two trains of thought need to be developed—both aca­d­e­m­ic and social— and my expe­ri­ence at Wes­ley did that very well,” she says. Her var­ied career has includ­ed being a disc jock­ey, a Head Start social work­er and a health care admin­is­tra­tor. Her cur­rent posi­tion as bureau chief for ado­les­cent and repro­duc­tive health with the Delaware Divi­sion of Pub­lic Health calls upon all the var­ied knowl­edge and skills that she devel­oped over the years. “Through­out my life I prayed to God for direc­tion,” James says. “And the com­bi­na­tion of my per­son­al­i­ty and the spir­it inter­ven­ing has led me to all these career avenues, and to where I am today.”

Her many respon­si­bil­i­ties with the Divi­sion of Pub­lic Health include super­vis­ing the staff respon­si­ble for fam­i­ly plan­ning ser­vices at 26 clin­ic sites and 28 school­based health cen­ters through­out Delaware. She also works with physi­cians, nurse prac­ti­tion­ers, social work­ers and health care sys­tems through­out the state to ensure stu­dent ser­vice deliv­ery. Among her most recent accom­plish­ments was secur­ing a fed­er­al grant for preg­nan­cy pre­ven­tion in Delaware through the nation­al Per­son­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty Edu­ca­tion Pro­gram.

The third mem­ber of this Wes­ley trio found her voca­tion as a school psychologist—and par­tic­u­lar­ly in the past two decades, as a short-term mis­sion­ary in Africa for her church. In her near­ly 20-year career in New Jer­sey schools she coor­di­nat­ed ser­vices for stu­dents in grades 1–12 in pub­lic and pri­vate schools. She worked with stu­dents with an array of chal­lenges from phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties to devel­op­men­tal delays to emo­tion­al dis­tur­bances. Although her health forced her to retire from a Cam­den Coun­ty school dis­trict in 2007, she has con­tin­ued her work into the present as a con­sul­tant in var­i­ous edu­ca­tion­al set­tings in the Philadel­phia area.

Wat­son also has felt called to mis­sion­ary work, and she has been on short-term mis­sion trips with­in the U.S. and through­out the world. Her heart, though, is with Africa, and she has been on mis­sion trips to Ghana, Liberia, Togo, South Africa and, most fre­quent­ly, to Kenya. Kenya was also the site of her longest mis­sion trip—a school-year assign­ment to Nairo­bi where she served as both the first school coun­selor at St. Mary’s Edu­ca­tion Cen­tre Sec­ondary School and as an edu­ca­tion­al con­sul­tant and teacher train­er for a pri­vate school serv­ing chil­dren with spe­cial needs.

Being among the small group of African Amer­i­can stu­dents at Wes­ley in the ear­ly 1970s meant that some­times Nichols, James and Wat­son need­ed to call upon the sup­port and coun­sel of fel­low stu­dents and admin­is­tra­tors— and espe­cial­ly of each oth­er. Reflect­ing back, the women say they are thank­ful for the lessons they learned while stu­dents at Wes­ley, and for the ways their aca­d­e­m­ic and social expe­ri­ences shaped them into the women they are today.

“My pro­fes­sors saw poten­tial in me. They nour­ished me aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, and I flour­ished in that envi­ron­ment,” James says. “It’s like I was a plant and Wes­ley nour­ished me with sun and water. All these years lat­er, the roots I devel­oped at Wes­ley are still there and still strong.”

Leave Comment