With stirring music, solemn prayer and candlelight, the N.C. Central University community paid tribute to its late chancellor, Debra Saunders-White, on Monday.
The return of students to campus from Thanksgiving was marked by tears as they gathered around the statue of NCCU founder James Shepard to remember Saunders-White, who died of cancer on Saturday. She had led the university for three and a half years before her death at the age of 59.
“She is and will forever be connected to us,” said Student Government Association President Alesha Holland. “Because of her right now, we can decide to live more consciously, more fully, more richly, as Chancellor Saunders-White would have wanted us to do. She wouldn’t expect us to mourn very long. She was expecting us to become global students, who would use our education to better this world. And she’d expect us to soar, as eagles do.”
A short ceremony Monday at B.N. Duke Auditorium was marked by spirited gospel music and a video that showed Saunders-White in action as chancellor, jumping up and down on the football sidelines and hugging students as they received their diplomas.
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Derrick Hicks, a former student body president and current graduate student, recalled Saunders-White singing “Amazing Grace” at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony two years ago. “She specifically stated that her students were her amazing grace,” Hicks said.
Dajah Johnson said Saunders-White’s focus on Eagle Excellence was really about empowering students to do whatever they wanted in life.
“She was brilliant,” said Johnson, who is Miss NCCU. “She was a fighter, and she was our living example of power and grace. We witnessed this every day.”
The crowd filed outside the administration building, where people lifted small candles and prayed as a choir sang a gentle hymn. Afterward, mourners placed the candles at the base of the Shepard statue, next to a wreath of white flowers.
The university will hold a Celebration of Life tribute Friday at 2 p.m. in NCCU’s McDougald-McLendon Arena. Saunders-White’s funeral is scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m. at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Hampton, Va.