Student Brings Advocacy to Va. Board for People with Disabilities

For some time, Alexus Smith ’19 has sought to foster greater awareness of the issues that people with disabilities face. Now, she will be taking her interest in activism to a statewide level, thanks to her appointment by Gov. Terry McAuliffe to the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities (VBPD).


Smith will serve a four-year term and will be eligible for reappointment.

“The board works for the benefit of individuals with DD (developmental disabilities) and their families to identify needs and help develop policies, programs, and services that will meet these needs in a manner that respects dignity and independence,” says VBPD Executive Director Heidi Lawyer. “A key aspect of our work is to advise the Governor, legislators, and government agencies on public policy issues as well as on how to develop programs and services for people with DD that will eliminate barriers to full inclusion in all facets of community life.”

Alexus Smith '19
“Advocacy is vital to disability culture and my life as a disabled woman.” – Alexus Smith ’19

“Advocacy is vital to disability culture and my life as a disabled woman,” says Smith, an English major from South Boston, Virginia. “The rights of my people will always be one of my many passions along with my love for English and literature. I hope I can use my degree and skills as part of my advocacy work.”

Smith’s journey to VBPD membership began in 2013. “I was a student in the Youth Leadership Forum (YLF), a board-sponsored training program that focuses on post-high school transition, self-advocacy, goal setting, self-acceptance, and job-related skills such as resume writing,” she explains. As a YLF alumna, she was invited to apply this year for one of the openings on the board. Her application and others were reviewed by the director of the VBPD. Recommendations were then made to the Governor, who has the final say on appointments.

Smith wants to achieve a number of goals during her board membership. “I hope to gain a better understanding of disability policy so that I can advocate more effectively for the needs of people like myself. There are many factors that make up the lifestyles, access to resources, and emotional well-being of people with disabilities, and I want to address this issue.”

Smith adds that she plans to draw upon her experiences as a student, mentor, awareness event planner, and writer to introduce new ideas to the board. “Compassion, openness, a strong voice, and attention to detail are at the core of my leadership style and I am excited to bring those attributes forward to benefit the board’s mission.”

Sophomore from Nepal Helps New International Students Feel at Home

Traveling thousands of miles away from home to a country you’ve never visited and attending a college you’ve never seen except online would be a daunting task for anyone. Yet that was the challenge that Grishma Bhattarai ’20 boldly accepted when she made the trek from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Hollins a little over a year ago.

“No matter how confident I looked, at the end of the day I was a little scared,” Bhattarai admits, looking back. But today, the economics and mathematics double major is thriving, both in and out of the classroom, and despite a demanding schedule, one of her highest priorities is assisting other international students after they start their education at Hollins.

“When I came to Hollins, I immediately met people who knew my name and who had taken the time to learn about me, my interests, and my likes and dislikes before I had even arrived,” Bhattarai recalls. “They created a space of comfort for me. I felt I needed to do the same for other international students when they came to campus. I wanted to become their friend and confidant so that I could help them during their first year’s journey at Hollins.”

Bhattarai is a peer mentor with Hollins’ International Student Orientation Program (ISOP), which prepares students from abroad for living and studying at the university. “For international students it can be difficult because they are coming from so many different cultures. Breaking the ice with them at the very beginning is important to get to know more about them and where they’re from. We talk to them about culture shock and help them become familiar with what will be new to them in America.”

What students should expect both academically and on a personal level at Hollins is the second focus of Bhattarai and other peer mentors. “One the biggest objectives of being a peer mentor is sharing your experience as a first-year student. I talk with new students about what they can do to succeed academically and I’m also open about the mistakes that I made so that they can avoid them.”

ISOP isn’t limited to just a few days at the outset of the new academic session. Peer mentors remain dedicated to new international students throughout their entire first year. “During the fall and spring, we get together for weekly dinners and talk about the classes they are taking, something new they are experiencing, or some concern they are having so that we can tackle the problem together,” Bhattarai explains. “ISOP, especially for Hollins, is a way to build a family within the campus community. There’s this safe space where students can express their anxieties and we can help them.”

Bhattarai believes the best advice she can give to an international student who is considering coming to America to continue their education is to “be open minded, be open to new experiences, and be open to meeting new people. The undergraduate experience is going to be really different from what you had in high school, especially considering the fact you’re also going to be immersed in a completely different culture.”

That attitude served Bhattarai well. Even though before coming to Hollins she had spent her entire educational life studying in an all-girls’ convent school and knew she wanted to attend a women’s college, she says she was pleasantly surprised at the atmosphere Hollins offered.

“Nepal’s education system does not allow you to try new subjects. But Hollins is this amazing liberal arts college where you can study different subjects before you have to actually choose your major. I never thought I’d be taking a dance history class and learning about Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan. I never thought I would study calculus and apply it in my daily life.

“Hollins is a place where there are no boundaries. You can do whatever you want to do.”

In addition to her work as an ISOP peer mentor, Bhattarai is vice chair of Hollins’ academic policy board and serves on the university’s Honor Court. She provides campus tours for prospective students and in June was part of the staff for Reunion 2017. She’s participating in the Honors Seminar Program and is presently investigating internship and research opportunities for next summer, including one offered at MIT.

“I want to pursue a Ph.D. in economics and Hollins has been shaping me for that,” Bhattarai says. “I’m planning to do study abroad in Italy during my junior year and that’s going to enrich my experience as a global citizen.” In her doctorate work, she intends to “look at the economy and living standards of rural, struggling communities and developing countries from a women’s studies and developmental economics perspective.”

Another factor that was impactful for Bhattarai during her first year at Hollins was the inspiration she received from President Nancy Gray, who retired this summer. Now, because of her international background, new president Pareena Lawrence is providing Bhattarai’s sophomore year with a singular resonance.

“Seeing a president who is similar to you in so many ways, it gives you a special drive to do better. Having a woman of color in the biggest position on campus, someone I can look up to in a genuine manner, it makes me feel that maybe someday I can reach that position, too. I’m so thankful for that. That’s something Hollins is giving me this year.”

President Lawrence’s Statement on Charlottesville

Hollins President Pareena Lawrence shared the following message today with students, faculty, and staff: 

To the campus community,

Like many of you, I reacted with shock, outrage, and sadness to the events that unfolded in Charlottesville this weekend.  I join with political and academic leaders from across the nation in condemning the bigotry and violence perpetrated by white-supremacist organizations. I also send my deepest condolences to the families of Heather Heyer and Virginia State Troopers Berke M.M. Bates and H. Jay Cullen, who tragically lost their lives on Saturday.

Hollins, like so many institutions of higher learning, embraces inclusivity and diversity. We promote free speech and a constructive and peaceful exchange of thought, whether there is consensus or disagreement.

It is incumbent upon all of us to avoid the danger of complacency when white nationalists and other extremists perpetuate racism and resort to violence. We must reaffirm by our actions as well as words that there is no place for either. As we prepare to begin Fall Term in a few weeks, let us take this opportunity –actively and purposefully –to set an example. Let us recommit ourselves to fostering an atmosphere of love, care, and compassion. Let us redouble our efforts to support one another and uphold civility, integrity, and social justice.

As I posted on Twitter last Saturday, “We are a proud nation that exemplifies multiracial and multiethnic democracy. We must stand together when any group takes that away from us.”

Pareena Lawrence


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Hollins Honors the University’s Founder and Sustainers

Hollins commemorated Founder’s Day and the university’s 175th anniversary by paying tribute to all who played a crucial role in its history during Hollins Day: Celebrating 175 Years, a special event held February 23 in the Hollins Theatre.

“We honor our founder, Charles Lewis Cocke, who devoted his life to ‘the higher education of women in the South’ during an era when many women were denied the opportunity to earn a college degree,” President Nancy Gray stated in her opening remarks. “We also honor all others who were important in our institutional history. Hollins was founded during a time in American history when slavery existed, especially in the South. Men and women worked at Hollins before and during the Civil War as enslaved people. None of us are proud of that aspect of our history, which runs contrary to our fundamental belief in freedom for all.

“We remain grateful to members of what was known at the time as the Oldfields Community, who, along with our founder, helped us become the institution we are today.”

The event culminated months of planning by the Hollins Heritage Committee, a group of students, faculty, and staff dedicated to promoting campus-wide dialogue on issues of collective memory, diversity, and reconciliation.

“This may never have happened without the activism and energy of our amazing student body here at Hollins,” Associate Professor and Director of International Studies and Heritage Committee Chair Jon Bohland told the convocation audience. “Like many institutions, Hollins University now engages with the ghosts of its past as we endeavor to tell our collective 175-year story in its entirety, celebrating our many triumphs while openly acknowledging our faults and our misdeeds.

“It is because of student activism that our campus is now beginning a very public and transparent engagement with our past, even when it is painful. I want to personally thank the students for your work in jump-starting this process here at Hollins and congratulate you for joining the students from universities across the country engaged in similar campaigns.”

Bohland announced that Hollins has recently become part of the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, a group of 25 North American colleges and universities that meets twice a year “to share best practices and to draw strength from our collective efforts.”

The Hollins Heritage Committee’s work is ongoing, and alumnae who have research or other information about Hollins during the Civil War era are invited to contact Associate Professor of International Studies and Committee Chair Jon Bohland ( or Special Collections and Government Information Librarian Beth Harris (

Other highlights of the 175th anniversary celebration included:

  • Voices from Our Past, featuring current students, faculty, and staff reading first-person accounts of members of the campus community from throughout the school’s history, including an African-American who was enslaved at Hollins.
  • The 175, a video produced by the Hollins dance department featuring 175 members of the campus community performing their own singular movements.
  • Songs of Hollins: Past and Present, performed by the Hollins University Choirs.

In addition, Gray and Vice President for Academic Affairs Trish Hammer announced the following awards:

  • The Roberta A. Stewart Service Award was presented to Professor of Art Robert Sulkin. The award is granted annually to a member of the community, employed by the university, whose service most closely reflects the extraordinary standards set by Stewart during 40 years at Hollins. Recipients demonstrate long-term service; loyalty to the university and commitment to its principles; effectiveness; friendly, cooperative acceptance of responsibilities; genuine wisdom; and deep caring for students and colleagues.
  • Associate Professor of English Elizabeth Poliner received this year’s Herta T. Freitag Faculty Legacy Award. First presented in 2000, the award is given to a member of the faculty whose recent scholarly and creative accomplishments reflect the academic standards set by Freitag, who served as professor of mathematics at Hollins from 1948 to 1971. Poliner’s novel, As Close to Us as Breathing, was among’s Top 100 Editors’ Picks for 2016. The story of a close-knit Jewish family that strives to cope following a tragedy is “vivid, complex, and beautifully written,” said Edward P. Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Known World. “[It] brims with characters who leave an indelible impression on the mind and heart. Elizabeth Poliner is a wonderful talent and she should be read widely, and again and again.”
  • The annual Hollins University Teaching Award was given to Cleo Mack, a teacher at Middlesex County School in New Jersey. The award celebrates a member of the teaching profession who has dedicated his or her time and talent to preparing the nominating student for an outstanding liberal arts education. Mack was nominated by Lianna King ’17. The award is endowed by Mary Bernhardt Wolfe Decker ’58.

Special guests included members of the Cocke family, descendants of those who worked as enslaved people on the campus during Hollins’ early years, and members of the Hollins University Board of Trustees.

Following the convocation, Hollins’ senior class continued its tradition of processing to the Cocke family cemetery to place wreaths on the family’s graves. This year, for the first time, the seniors also placed a wreath outside Wyndham Robertson Library to honor the contributions of enslaved men and women.

Photo: Members of Hollins’ class of 2017 place wreaths at the Cocke family cemetery and Wyndham Robertson Library.


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Gray Leads Forum on College Presidents’ Role in Promoting Campus Inclusivity

With a focus on shaping a welcoming, inclusive campus culture, Hollins University President Nancy Gray moderated the first-ever Presidential Forum on Diversity and Inclusion at the 2017 Presidents Institute, presented by The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC).

The largest annual gathering of college and university presidents in the United States, the Presidents Institute this year explored the theme, “Education for America’s Future.” Guarding freedom of speech, growing diversity, building inclusive communities, and encouraging global awareness were among the topics of interest.

The forum, which also featured leaders from DePaul University, Ithaca College, Jarvis Christian College, and Oberlin College, looked at ways to nurture a campus atmosphere “where students, faculty, and staff are free to express their views while remaining respectful of those who disagree,” according to the CIC newsletter Independent. “The candid discussion began with observations from college and university presidents who have encountered concerns about inequality, injustice, diversity, inclusion, or free expression on their campuses.”

Gray delivered a summary of the campus climate survey that Hollins administered in December 2015. “Overall, the survey data suggested that Hollins had a welcoming and respectful environment for students, faculty, and staff but that there were significant differences in perceptions and experiences depending on race, ethnicity, gender, and political perspective,” the Independent reports. “For example, students of color rated the campus less welcoming and less respectful than the overall rating. ‘The good news,’ [Gray] said, ‘was that an overwhelming majority of survey participants said “we can do better” and “we want to do better.”’”

The Independent continues, “The university’s leadership identified several actions they could take to foster a more inclusive and diverse community: offer professional development for faculty and staff members; provide leadership training for students; offer new educational programs and activities for students during orientation; review and change hiring procedures; hire a new diversity officer; engage in dialogues with community members; and appoint an on-campus heritage committee to study the institutional history of slavery with representatives joining other colleges and universities studying the same issues.”

The CIC’s 2017 Presidents Institute was held January 4 – 7 in Orlando, Florida.

Photo: The Presidential Forum on Diversity and Inclusion featured presidents (from left to right) Marvin Krislov of Oberlin College, Lester C. Newman of Jarvis Christian College, Thomas R. Rochon of Ithaca College, Dennis H. Holtschneider, CM, of DePaul University, and Nancy Gray of Hollins.


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Hollins Appoints Special Advisor on Inclusivity and Diversity

Hollins University has named Idella Goodson Glenn as Special Advisor on Inclusivity and Diversity. She will have oversight of and coordinate all inclusivity and diversity activities and programs at the university.

A collaborative leader with 25 years of higher education experience, the last 20 years focused on leading diversity and inclusion initiatives, Glenn comes to Hollins from Virginia Commonwealth University, where she was director for diversity education and retention initiatives. While at VCU, she created diversity and inclusion education sessions; facilitated relationships among 13 colleges/schools on two campuses to maximize diversity and inclusion efforts; and was part of the core leadership team for the Institute on Inclusive Teaching.

Prior to joining VCU, Glenn served in a number of roles during 18 years at Furman University, including assistant vice president for student development and director of diversity and inclusion; assistant dean for diversity and inclusion; and director of multicultural affairs. She was an effective liaison between multicultural and international students and the university’s faculty, staff, and administration, and developed an ongoing educational awareness program to sensitize the campus community regarding multicultural issues.

Glenn holds a B.S. from Furman and completed her M.Ed. in higher educational administration at the University of South Carolina. She earned her Ph.D. in educational leadership at Clemson University. In 2005, the Southern Association of College Student Affairs presented her the Bobby E. Leach Award for significant contribution to the development of multicultural relations on campus. The following year, Furman honored her with the Chiles-Harrill Award in recognition of exemplary concern and exceptional caring for undergraduate students. Last August, she received the James Curtis Harkness Foundation Community Award.

Glenn is a member of the board of directors at the National Coalition Building Institute and a senior leader for their campus programs. She also serves on the National Advisory Council for the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity.


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Hollins Professor Part of “Women Influencing the Arts” Celebration

LeeRay Costa, John P. Wheeler Professor of Anthropology and Gender and Women’s Studies at Hollins University, will present “Girls Rock Roanoke: Inclusivity and Transformation in Non-profit Arts Education” at the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech on Thursday, September 29, at 5:30 p.m. The event is sold out.

Costa will discuss the joys and challenges of transformative non-profit arts education through her experience leading Girls Rock Roanoke, an empowerment program for girls and gender non-conforming youth in Southwest Virginia.

The lecture is part of the Women Influencing the Arts speakers series, sponsored by the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech and the School of Performing Arts. According to the Women’s Center, the series “provides a space for women artists and arts leaders as well as their supporters to come together to discuss challenges, provide advice, and ultimately celebrate accomplishments. The goal is to foster honest and open dialogues in a productive environment. It is intended to be informative and also positive and inspirational: the series will celebrate women’s strength, perseverance, and tenacity through the personal stories of the speakers who participate.”



Hollins’ “Love Not Hate” Event Garners Extensive Media Coverage

On Monday, March 28, members of the Hollins community gathered on Front Quad to support one another and promote love, beauty, and inclusivity.

Local media outlets came out to campus to cover the university’s “Love Not Hate” event, which was organized in response to the defacement of The Rock, a campus landmark.

Here are links to coverage from The Roanoke Times, WSLS 10, and WFXR 21/27.

A Long-Standing Dedication to Diversity and Inclusivity

Hollins has long been committed to fostering a campus community that encourages and values diversity and inclusivity. Ours is a culture of respect and a campus of tolerance.

Working to abolish prejudice never ends and Hollins is committed to promoting racial and cultural understanding. Most notably:

  • Over the years, our Student Government Association, Black Student Alliance, OUTloud, Spiritual and Religious Life Association, and other student clubs and organizations, along with faculty and staff, have developed a variety of activities and implemented programs that support diversity and inclusivity.
  • Cultural and Community Engagement (CCE) was created to support an inclusive community, promote acceptance, and celebrate difference. It includes the Early Transition Program, which is designed to assist new students from underrepresented groups, and the International Student Orientation Program, which focuses on helping international students adjust to living and studying at Hollins and in the United States. CCE also conducts Safe Haven workshops for those who want to serve as advocates for Hollins’ LBGTQ community.
  • Educating Women Who Will Make a Difference in the 21st Century, Hollins’ five-year strategic plan launched in 2006, reiterated our dedication “to high standards of respect, civility, and concern for others. Students must understand their own place and perspective within the context of an increasingly diverse society.” Hollins has promoted academic and experiential learning opportunities in support of this pledge. Connecting Liberal Arts Education and Experience to Achieve Results, the five-year strategic plan guiding the university through 2017, continues this commitment.
  • Last spring, Hollins announced a plan to further these efforts. We held listening sessions with students; conducted training sessions for faculty to help them lead classroom discussions where every student can feel respected; and provided workshops for student affairs staff and student leaders. Hollins’ New Student Orientation has added a program for incoming first-year students that is devoted to cultural competency and inclusivity.
  • In November 2015, Hollins administered a climate assessment survey. Its purpose was to gather important feedback regarding the university’s diversity and inclusivity strengths, and the areas where further community-building is needed. The results of the survey were the catalyst for a series of insight conversations where students can share perspectives and build capacity for critical dialogue. These discussions began in early March and will continue through the spring and the next academic year.
  • President Gray is currently finalizing appointments to the new Hollins Heritage Committee, a group of students, faculty, and staff who will help us develop a greater understanding of our history and seek ways to recognize and honor the mid-19th century slaves and others whose work ensured the institution’s survival during its early years. Scholarships were established more than a decade ago for the descendants of Oldfields, a nearby African-American community that played an instrumental role in the institution’s growth.

Hollins has and will continue to sponsor or participate in events that illuminate important issues related to diversity, inclusivity, and cultural history. A few examples include:

  • Distinguished speakers such as filmmaker Spike Lee, economist Julianne Malveaux, and educator Johnnetta Cole.
  • Hollins Theatre’s stage adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winner and Hollins alumna Natasha Trethewey’s poetry collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia.
  • A screening of the Oscar-nominated film Selma, which brought together six Roanoke Valley higher education institutions to promote discussions about equal rights.

Hollins’ goal is one we should all share: to encourage and ultimately become even more of a community that is welcoming, empowering, and prepared to engage in a civil and constructive exchange of ideas.


JCRC Commends Hollins University for Reaction to Swastika Discovery

The Jewish Community Federation of Richmond is applauding Hollins students and administration for their response to the defacement of The Rock last weekend. Here is a statement from the organization, released March 29:


Contact: Daniel Fogel, Director of Jewish Community Relations, (804) 545-8626

RICHMOND, VA – The Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond (JCFR) commends the administration and student body of Hollins University for their actions following the discovery of a swastika painted on The Rock, a campus landmark.

JCRC Chair, Frances F. Goldman said, “The swastika represents the ultimate symbol of hatred and its discovery in any context is extremely disconcerting. In the context of increased anti-Semitism in the U.S. and abroad the discovery of a swastika on a Virginia campus was distressing to say the least. The response of the Hollins University to this threatening event has been stellar, for which I am grateful.”

Hollins University President Nancy Gray posted to Facebook, “I wanted to express to you my profound anger and sorrow over the swastika that was painted on The Rock.… This was a threatening act that has no place at Hollins…. We will not tolerate this or any other malicious behavior that damages our core commitments of civil discourse, social justice, and respect for others…. I invite you to attend a special event on Front Quad called “Love Not Hate.” … We will not be intimidated or discouraged by shameful acts such as this.” Gray also, very appropriately made available resources for anyone on campus who feels unsafe, threatened or harassed. She also noted the Hollins University Security Department was investigating; WSLS 10 reported that the Roanoke County Police Department is investigating the matter as a possible hate crime.

Hollins University Chaplain, Jenny Call, said, “We are defined by our love and support for one another.” Powerful statements were also issued by Trish Hammer, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Students Patty O’Toole. The Rock has been repainted, “Take Back The Rock,” and Hollins students spent the afternoon chalking messages of love, tolerance and acceptance in the area.