6:57 pm
Wed May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou Leaves Lasting Impact on Former Students & WFU Community

As word continues to spread about the passing of Maya Angelou Wednesday morning, several community members are stopping to pay tribute to the renowned poet, author and civil rights activist. Dr. Angelou has also been a big part of Wake Forest University over the years where she served as Reynolds Professor of American Studies.

Rogan Kersh, the Provost of Wake Forest University, was a former student of Dr. Maya Angelou in the early 1980s. He says her lively persona and philosophies about life have had an impact on him both personally and professionally.
Credit Wake Forest University

In the spring of 1983, Rogan Kersh, the University's provost and professor of political science, was a freshman on campus. That’s when he met Dr. Maya Angelou.  The prolific writer’s book I know Why the Caged Bird Sings had received international attention, but her global stature as a literary poet was yet to come. Kersh vividly recalls their first interaction at Wake Forest.

“A number of us (students) came into class not knowing what to expect. This was before the web, so it wasn’t like you could look her up to find out more. Her extraordinary presence was both inspiring and kind of surprising. She just filled up the space so remarkably, and by the end of the class we were in love,” says Kersh.

Dr. Angelou filled her students' heads with lessons about literature and poetry. But what left a lasting impact that is still felt across campus today, is her perseverance and regard for other people.  

“She told us in the most powerfully personal terms, again and again, that she had been rebuked, blocked, halted, had messed up herself and fell on her face, but got back up and did extraordinary things. She managed to convey to us both what it meant to be a successful, balanced professional, and then also what it meant to be someone who made a difference in the world. I think all of us left that class far more inspired to contribute, to engage, to make a difference than when we had arrived.”

Dr. Angelou’s last public speaking engagement at Wake Forest University was on November 6, 2013, when she delivered opening remarks for a celebration of the campus-wide “Dignity and Respect Campaign.” Video of her remarks can be viewed here.

Kersh says that over the years, Dr. Angelou donated several of her poems, papers and other literary works to Wake Forest. They are located in the Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections & Archives.  

Meanwhile, Wake Forest University has published a remembrance site with additional details about Dr. Angelou’s teaching career at Wake Forest. People also may share their memories or condolences at this site.  A memorial service will be held on the university’s campus at a later date.

Follow Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news