“The first time I stood on the stage at the Cantab Lounge. I was supported by the audience…and people said ‘Thank you.’” The feeling was very powerful.
It was Lalenja Harrington’s first “slam poetry” piece. She’d graduated from Princeton in psychology and was working in Boston. On the stage of this club, she was elevated. Her slam poetry team eventually made it to Nationals. The experience has inspired her ever since. And it inspires what she does at UNCG.
Harrington is director of academic life for Beyond Academics at UNCG. The program, marking its sixth year, is for students with intellectual disabilities. Integrative Community Studies, a four-year UNCG certificate course of study, prepares students for a self-determined life. The program emphasizes careers and meaningful avocations and community living. Students completing the program receive the certificate awarded by Undergraduate Studies at UNCG.
She advises the students and helps them on their way to success. All the while, her artistic side is evident.
When the Carolina Chocolate Drops gave the kickoff concert for this year’s UNCG Performing Arts Series, she was invited on stage for a duet of “I Know I’ve Been Changed” with her sister, Rhiannon Giddens, a lead singer in the band. It brought the house down.
The band auctioned off a special banjo for Beyond Academics, the week of that concert. Harrington’s sister, featured in the recent UNCG Alumni Magazine, was once in the UNCG graduate program in Music.
Giddens told the audience that her sister helped write one song on the CD. She’d been stuck. But that particular song, “Country Girl,” became the most popular on the album. “I got a check – not a huge check,” from royalties, Harrington says, explaining the song did particularly well in Australia.
The song is on the “Leaving Eden” CD, nominated for a Grammy for “Best Folk Album.” Harrington and her family will gather this Sunday to watch the “live stream” of the awards show.
Harrington and Giddens have recorded a new CD, “I Know I’ve Been Changed” by The Giddens Sisters, released this week by Music Maker. Harrington played Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at the Emerson’s Bar & Grille” last year in Winston-Salem. Two years ago she was the narrator and co-author of “Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville” with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and other artists at Chicago’s legendary Old Town Folk School.
She has applied to the UNCG doctoral program in Educational Leadership and Cultural Foundations. And her work in Integrative Community Studies involves a lot of responsibilities, to help ensure success. She says her focus in recent years is much less on her art and expression, but instead on others’.
“I want to support folks in finding their voice and having space to express themselves.”
Two classes of Beyond Academics students have graduated. After six years, the program’s enrollment has grown from eight to 48. In addition to staff, many faculty and students are involved in some way. Last semester, 17 of Dr. Stephanie Kurtts’ students majoring in specialized education furthered their engaged learning by serving as academic coaches. Since almost the inception of the program, Dr. Stuart Schleien’s students in community and therapeutic recreation have matched up with Beyond Academics students to explore inclusive activities in student life.
The learning is cross-disciplinary, and everyone is fully engaged, learning from others. And the program’s students have had an increasing amount of access to degree-track classes.
It’s very fulfilling – making a difference in others’ lives, bringing people together, fostering collaborations and relationships. She’s found a very productive space in which to serve.
“I feel like I’m at the right place at the right time, at this university.”
Want to know more about Beyond Academics at UNCG? Visit beyondacademics.uncg.edu/about/. And see an archived feature on the program at www.uncg.edu/ure/alumni_magazineT2/2011_spring/feature_beyondacademics.htm
By Mike Harris