Decades ago, I first set foot on a college campus rich with character. Charming 1800s houses and halls interspersed with dormitories, academic buildings and a chapel from the 1900s welcomed us. Now, more housing and facilities from the 2000s grace the land. Hand-formed bricks baked on campus, ghost stories and the mythical lore of a college community made the place more than special for us.

Quickly, I learned the culture and community of the sacred space. A few peers from my high school and city had made their way to this spot in old Virginia when they heard “a melody divine,” as it “fills our hearts with longing,” and together there, we discovered that “sweetest memories there entwine.”

The alma mater at Emory & Henry gives a voice to the soul.

Something magical happens there, where people who are simply people come together and make something greater than themselves. I think of singing in the chapel, oratorio and concert choirs of the early 1990s. We who had average-to-good voices sang out under the training of a passionate director, Charles “Doc” Davis. Somehow, the Spirit interceded, and something mystical happened. Our lesser voices became a greater Voice.

Nearly 30 years have passed. My husband and I still find ourselves singing phrases of certain songs we memorized for mini-tours across the region and for our larger tours, nationally and internationally. We also break out in choral responses we learned for Sunday morning worship. We are steeped in singing.

We also learned secular songs. A group of college women handed down the song made popular by Frank Sinatra in 1959 and Doris Day in 1964: “Just what makes that little old ant / Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant / Anyone knows an ant can’t / Move a rubber tree plant / But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes / He’s got high, apple-pie, in-the-sky hopes.”

High hopes. That ant had high hopes, determination and resiliency. The ant kept on and, in spite of all that limited him, “oops, there goes another rubber tree plant.”

At the college, we learned a great deal about resiliency. A network of faculty, community members, staff and students helped us develop our individual and shared sense of confidence. We grew in understanding of what we were competent in doing — and doing well. We found launching pads for our future development.

Together, we learned to cope with losses, our individuality and challenges in our sphere of influence and the larger world. We lost parents, grandparents and classmates to death. We grieved together and supported one another. We helped one another cope, even in the face of mental health challenges. We helped each other cope as relationships formed and fell apart.

We built deep connections with one another in our respective circles but also learned that we would have lifelong links with others who walked other paths and came from a wide span of generations of alumni.

We learned that we could make choices that would result in positive outcomes or sometimes have significant consequences. This was safe to do on a small campus with a tight network. The kinds of mistakes we could make were ones from which we could learn and grow — in community with support and encouragement.

We worked to make our own contributions on campus. Some achieved individually while others shared in community accomplishments. Many still contribute to the college in leadership, service and financial giving. We often share stories of the unique community — local, global, transgenerational — and experience of Emory & Henry.

My spouse and I remain tremendously grateful for the impact this place and people had on us. The experience transformed us and has helped us to steep ourselves in our Appalachian home while we extend our wings in service to those around us.

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Longing to breathe deeply and to walk with others as they seek to meet their longings, C. A. Rollins writes and invites you to reflect with her at carollinswrites@gmail.com.

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