Written by Danielle Couture
From left to right: MLK Winners Alycia Bright-Holland, Rose Marie Hernández and Yollaine Kaja with Eastern President Elsa Nunez.
Willimantic, Conn. - Eastern Connecticut State University presented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Service Awards on Feb. 19th to Biology major Yollaine Kaja; Alycia Bright-Holland, lecturer of performing arts; and Rose Marie Hernández, family liaison at Windham Middle School and coordinator of the Puentes al Futuro/Bridges to the Future program. The awards recognize members of the campus community and community-at-large whose actions demonstrate distinguished service in promoting the ideals of King, and to further the goals of diversity and social equality.
Eastern alumnus Ryan J. Davis '03 delivered the keynote address at the awards ceremony, held in the Paul E. Johnson Sr. Conference Room of the J. Eugene Smith Library. Davis is the senior program manager for the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which is designed to increase the number of students of color who earn postsecondary degrees. Davis also has experience as a teacher, higher education administrator and education policy researcher.
Davis described Eastern as a community that cares about students and provides "wraparound" support. "Eastern was the birthplace of my service-focused leadership. It is where I began to give," he said, mentioning the Covenant Soup Kitchen, tutoring in local schools and Habitat for Humanity. Davis talked about Dr. King's accomplishments during his short life. "King graduated from college at 19, received the Nobel Prize at age 34 and died at 39. Yet all the stress he was under (his house was burned, he was stabbed, constant written and verbal abuse) impacted his health. His autopsy revealed he had the heart health of a 60-year-old man. Yet he is one of the few non-Presidents with a monument on the Washington Mall." At the end of his speech, Davis left the audience with questions to ask themselves: "Am I impacting lives in the most robust way possible?" "What path am I willing to commit to?" "What will my legacy be?" "What gift will I leave this world?"
Kaja '16, a biology major with a double minor in Peace and Human Rights and French, comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and speaks five languages. She is involved with various groups on campus including the Center for Community Engagement, the Peace and Human Rights Club and UNICEF, for which she opened a chapter on campus. Kaja plans to be a doctor and spent six weeks this past summer at Yale in a program for students considering medical/dental careers. She is currently shadowing a doctor at Windham Hospital.
"I am a simple girl from the Congo," she said. "Like Dr. King, I have a dream of service, education and justice for all. I have been blessed with so many opportunities. We are here as members of the same human race, and so I will treat this award as a symbol of peace."
Bright-Holland, lecturer of performing arts, teaches classes for the First-Year Experience, the Theatre Program and the dance curriculum. She directed and choreographed "Once on This Island," a Caribbean musical play inspired by Haiti's history and spirituality. She has also contributed to several programs for the University Hours.
At the reception, it was announced that Bright-Holland will be starting as a full-time professor in the fall. "Being a leader means taking on responsibility," she said. "I will continue to work hard to deserve this award."
Hernández is the director of Puentes al Futuro/Bridges to the Future, a tutoring and youth mentoring program at Windham Middle School (WMS) and at the Windham High School (WHS). She has worked in collaboration with the Center for Community Engagement and Windham Public Schools for three years to make the program a great success. Hernández's most recent work is being a part of the Windham Task Force on Abuse and Neglect of Children.
"MLK took his message and beliefs far beyond the walls of his church," Hernández said, and talked about how she could better impact the local community and model King's compassion for people in the future.