On Saturday night, April 28, University of Lynchburg’s Office of Equity and Inclusion hosted its first Multicultural Gala. The sold-out, student-planned event was held in Memorial Ballroom and attracted more than 200 students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni.
Planning for the gala began last fall, when Darian Geddis ’20 and D’Andria Alston-Thomas ’19 approached OEI staff members with an idea. “We were trying to figure out ways to honor or recognize students, faculty, and staff who helped in the creation of the Office of Equity and Inclusion,” Geddis said, adding that he and Alston-Thomas “came up with the idea of a gala for everybody who has contributed to making University of Lynchburg a more equitable institution.”
Geddis and Alston-Thomas shared their idea with Annette Stadtherr and Aaron Smith, staff members in the Office of Equity and Inclusion, which was created in 2016. “They shared this idea with Annette and I as a way to celebrate those on campus who have been champions for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we thought it was a good idea,” Smith, the College’s Diversity and Inclusion Officer, said. “We encouraged them to plan it while we supported it. It turned into a wonderful gala event.”
While the event resembled other end-of-the-year awards ceremonies in some respects, the students wanted to plan something different, something elegant. “They wanted a fancy venue to do this, hence the idea about the gala with formal attire,” Smith said. “Students rarely get to dress up, so this was a night not only to celebrate, but to also look sharp in doing so.”
And dress up they did in floor-length gowns, tuxedos, bowties, sequins, the whole nine yards. “They were so dressed up,” Anne Gibbons, associate chaplain and director of the Bonner Leader Program, said. “You felt like you were at the Oscar’s or something.”
Numerous awards were presented at the gala, among them the inaugural Helen Mundy Witt Multicultural Service Award. The award is named for Lynchburg’s first African-American graduate, Helen Mundy Witt ’67, ’78 MEd. Witt also was the gala’s guest of honor.
Gibbons said of the “most powerful moments” of the night was when Jerica Simmons ’18 paid tribute to Witt. “She said, ‘If you hadn’t done what you did, I might not be here today,’” Gibbons recalled. “To see this inter-generational appreciation was amazing. Amazing doesn’t do it justice. It was very moving and very inspirational.”
The Helen Mundy Witt Multicultural Award recognizes an individual “who has enhanced the culture of inclusion on campus by promoting togetherness, diversity, and respect; created opportunities for unrepresented populations; and/or encouraged positive community between persons of different backgrounds.”
It was presented to Annette Stadtherr. Stadtherr has spent the past 28 years serving Lynchburg’s multicultural students, first in the Office of Institutional Change, followed by International Education, Multicultural Access and Commuter Services, Multicultural and International, and finally the Office of Equity and Inclusion, where she serves as director of multicultural services.
She was taken aback by the honor. “I’m humbled by it,” she said. “Overwhelmed and surprised and just really overwhelmed for the recognition. This program was about the students and the work that everyone has done to make this place a more inclusive and welcoming environment. The last thing I expected was for anything to be centered on me. It was incredible. I woke up on Sunday morning saying, ‘What just happened?’ It rendered me speechless and that doesn’t happen.”
Smith, who described the event as a “supremely successful night,” said he hopes the Multicultural Gala will be an annual event at Lynchburg. “I’m so excited about this opportunity,” he said the day before the gala. “I’m even more excited that the students were able to pull it off, with the collaborative help from a number of sponsoring offices and guidance from our office. They’ve been great, and they deserve all of the credit. Although this is the inaugural gala, we hope for many more to come.”
Gibbons said she was “blown away” by what the students accomplished. “It was completely owned by the students,” she said. “It was phenomenal. I’m almost speechless. From the decorations, the planning, the guests that were there, you could tell they took such pride in every aspect of it.”
Gibbons added that when she got home that night, she told her husband, “This might be one of the best events I’ve been to in 30 years.”
In addition to the Helen Mundy Witt award, the following awards were presented at the gala:
The “Leaving Your Legacy Award” went to Jerica Simmons ’18. The award “honors a senior who has exemplified excellent leadership along with service in areas of diversity and inclusion.” Simmons was described as “a role model who is genuine and works hard and with passion to further diversity and inclusion efforts.”
Darian Geddis ’20 was named the “Unsung Hero” for working “selflessly behind the scenes with a positive attitude to help in whatever capacity necessary.” Geddis serves as a mentor, has numerous leadership roles on campus, and has represented the College at national leadership and diversity conferences, all while avoiding the spotlight.
The “Always Becoming” award was presented to Davion Washington Jr. ’21. It “honors a freshman who shows perseverance in upholding the values of the Office of Equity and Inclusion.” He was described as an “evolving leader” and “a reflection of the University of Lynchburg vision to always becoming.”
Jer Bryant, director of the Wilmer Writing Center, was named “Voice of Inclusion.” The award “honors a student, faculty, or staff member who uses their voice to promote inclusion in their personal, professional, or collegiate journey.” Bryant was described as a “kind, emphatic, cooperative, and encouraging person who is extremely conscious and does a lot of work with the LGBT+ community, different ethnic groups, and has done substantial work with our international students as well.”
Anne Gibbons, associate chaplain and director of the Bonner Leader Program, received the “Humanitarian Award,” given to a faculty or staff member “who serves as a role model to the student body.” Gibbons was described as a “joyful leader who embodies integrity, teaches and challenges, and deeply cares for others, and continues to be an example to us all.”
Fabian Miramontes ’18 was named “Man of Diversity,” an award that “honors a male student who is active and committed to the mission of University of Lynchburg, ensuring that all members of our community are treated in a fair and equitable manner.” He was described as “always going above and beyond for everyone” and someone who “makes everyone feel loved.”
“Woman of Diversity” was Jerica Simmons ’18. She was described as a “hardworking” and “headstrong” woman who is “passionate about diversity and inclusion” and “made her mark with the many efforts that resulted when she stood in front of a crowd of administrators, trustees, faculty, staff, and students, and started the dialogues that shook up the campus climate at University of Lynchburg.”
The “Office of Equity and Inclusion Organization of the Year” went to the Black Student Association. In nominating the organization for the award, one student wrote, “This organization has made me passionate about unifying the campus and promoting culture and history to not only the College but Lynchburg as a whole. It has helped me gain so many leadership qualities and build lifelong friendships. It has brought students out of their shells and left a memorable mark.”