If you’re like me, you get a kick out of how Wake Foresters can pop up anywhere in the world and find easy-going, common ground.
A few weeks ago I heard from Blythe Riggan, who had just finished her first year at Wake Forest and was writing from Kigali, Rwanda. Participating in the Institute for Public Engagement’s summer nonprofit immersion program, Riggan was traveling with Mary Martin Niepold (’65), a senior lecturer in journalism and founder of The Nyanya Project, which helps African grandmothers support their AIDS-orphaned grandchildren.
As you’ll see from Riggan’s blog post, Wake Forest was not her first choice of universities. Reynolda campus was all-too familiar terrain for this Lexington, N.C., young woman who dressed as a Wake Forest cheerleader for Halloween when she was little. Black and gold seemed old hat. But her first year was more than she could have hoped for, and, as she wrote from Rwanda, “Somehow everything fell into place and I am now in Africa having the experience of a lifetime.”
She and Niepold visited nyanyas (Swahili for “grandmothers”) in the slums of Kenya and the hillsides of Rwanda, assuring grandmothers they would not be forgotten and surveying them on their economic progress to track the nonprofit’s impact. One day, in Kigali, she wound up at a dinner table with Niepold and Jeannetta Craigwell-Graham (’06). I visited Craigwell-Graham last year in New York, where she was an associate at Shearman and Sterling LLP, a blue-chip law firm. I wrote about how her two-month stint doing pro bono work in Africa ignited a passion to figure out a way to return. In a few weeks, she had found the way. She left New York for Kigali, for a job in the Strategic Investment Unit of the Rwanda Development Board.
Observing the immediate rapport between Niepold and Craigwell-Graham, Blythe wrote, “As we sat under the cool shade of the tin roof of a local restaurant, Zaffran’s, I listened to these two highly intelligent women discuss the government situation of various African countries. My surroundings flooded over me and I thought, ‘Wow. How did you end up eating at an Indian restaurant with these two women in Rwanda? Can you believe that you are eating lunch in Rwanda with two Wake Forest alumni?’ … I continued to listen in awe as the two swapped stories and discussed the development of African countries. My next thought? ‘Wow. Did you ever think this was possible? Now, can you even imagine the future possibilities?'”
When I saw Blythe in Winston-Salem last week, she said she had no words for how deeply the trip had affected her. She planned to continue working with Niepold this summer and found herself drawn to elders now that she was home.
I zipped off a note to Craigwell-Graham to ask about her impressions. Not only had she welcomed Blythe and Niepold, she’d also hosted other Wake Forest community members in May: Ajay Patel, a business professor who heads the Center for Enterprise Research and Education, and, separately, a group of Wake students traveling with Mary Gerardy, associate vice president and dean of campus life, and with Marianne Magjuka, director of campus life.
“Tracing back to the conversation I had with Maria Henson one year ago in a midtown restaurant, we were talking about the mission inherited by all Wake Forest students: Pro Humanitate,” she wrote. That’s why she was “hardly surprised” and “neglected to remark ‘what a coincidence'” to see all of these Wake Forest visitors.
“It’s no coincidence that a certain type of person would be attracted to Wake Forest,” Craigwell-Graham wrote. “Therefore (if I may be forgiven to make this logical leap just once), it’s no coincidence that some of those same people might end up in Rwanda. To meet, analyze, assist, learn — all different forms of action but aligned with the idea of service to mankind.”
Craigwell-Graham was pleased to see all the visitors and catch up on campus news, including whether Shag on the Mag still exists. (It does.) Most important, she wrote, the visits provided “clear and unequivocal reassurance” that she had attended the right college.
“Just one year ago I was stuck in a concrete jungle,” she wrote. “Now today I am in a place, Africa, Rwanda to be more specific, that is known for them and I couldn’t be more free.”
She was on the right track all along, she said. It was one more way she and Blythe share common ground on a planet that feels smaller every day as connections widen and strengthen. As Blythe would say: Imagine the possibilities.