"I learned to give everything I have with no conditions attached"

Dear Dr. Westmorland,

I hope this letter finds you well and in good spirits. My name is Paige Van de Vuurst, and though you probably don’t remember me, I am a recent graduate of Samford University’s Howard College of Arts and Science. I graduated in 2016; not so long ago even though it feels like an eternity, and have since been working in Tanzania. I’m currently working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a little village called Itulahumba as a secondary school teacher. I’ve been teaching biology and English here for about a year, and I can honestly say that it’s the most rewarding and simultaneously most difficult job I’ve ever had. I’m not writing to you today, however, as a Peace Corps Volunteer but as member of the Samford family. Today I write to you as a former student and current alumni. I’m writing to you as a humble member of the elite group of individuals that Samford at its core is and as a fellow compassionate human being; and I pray that these words reach you over the oceans they have traveled from my humble home in a country far from 800 Lakeshore Drive.

In my time at Samford I learned many things. From Biblical Perspectives to advanced Bioinformatics, every step of my journey across that campus rang with learning. I carried not just books out of my dorm room every day, but the words of wisdom and kindness from every person that I met on those cracked sidewalks. I learned so much. And I have found after all of my post-graduation fumblings and travels that the most important things that I learned at Samford were not within the confines of a classroom or found within the pages of a book. They were the principles I learned from meeting people soul to soul in the halls of those red bricked buildings. They were the open eyes and open hearts given to me by so many fellow students and professors. They were the strong arms that were always there to comfort and support me. What I learned at Samford was compassion, understanding, and the bravery to step into life with your heart, your mind and your arms wide open. To love and cross oceans for those that might not do the same for you, but are not less deserving of every ounce of my caring. I learned to work and to give everything I have with no conditions attached. That is what I learned from you.

And in the spirit of all that I learned in those hallowed halls I want you to consider the concept of Samford Together with those same open eyes and arms. SAFE Samford was a group I was a member of during my tenure as a Samford student. I was so proud of my university for having the understanding that even if a principle is foreign to you or even perceived as ‘wrong’ by some, it nevertheless warrants consideration and an open space for discussion. In a world that is so focused on fear, hate, and ignorance it was symbol to me that Samford was a family that supported each other no matter what. That uninhibited, unconditional charity that was spoken of in the bible was visible to me because of SAFE Samford.

For a community of people who so often feel excluded, disdained, and reviled because of who they are, just as Christians once were in Rome, groups like SAFE Samford and Samford Together are a beacon of light in a world that can seem so dark at times. Marie Curie once said that, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less” and I believe those words still ring true now more than ever. And what is higher education than place in which you are meant to understand the most? What is Samford other than a school; a place of learning?  We are fundamentally a community of scholars that should not shy away from the unknown, but forge into it head on. We are not a people that should deny students that wish to learn the dignity and respect they deserve because of our own prejudices. No, we should be the first in line to jump into that learning endeavor with them. So in that spirit, I am asking you reconsider stepping aside and letting the students of Samford do what they do best; learn bravely and boldly.

In closing, I wanted to remind you of a story that involves you personally; not as the university president or even as a professor, but as a compassionate human being. When I was a freshman at Samford, a very good friend of mine passed away. His name was Lakim Young, and he was one of the purest and most vibrant souls I’ve ever known in my time on this planet. A little over a year later another friend of mine named Trevelyn Campbell who was also a bright light on this earth was killed in a car accident. Both of them were students in the School of the Arts and as we all grieved together as a family, you and your wife were right there with us. After Trevelyn’s memorial service, the second I had been to in Reid Chapel, I went to thank you for all you had done for the School of the Arts community after both of their deaths, and I couldn’t keep it together. I had held back for my friends and the families of my lost friends, and I just could keep it up any longer. And as I started to break down, you walked over with your wife and you gave me a hug. A kid you had probably never even met before, whose name you probably didn’t know, was a mess in front of you, and instead of walking away like you could have, you showed me compassion, empathy, and love. In that moment I knew what and good teacher and leader was supposed to be, and that lesson has served me well here in Tanzania.

In Tanzania and many other African countries it is illegal to be homosexual, bisexual or transgender. It is a crime punishable by up to thirty years in prison. I teach students on the precipice of life, and many of whom are just now figuring out who they are as people. So when a student of mine came to me and said that they were terrified for their life because of their sexuality, I knew this was not teenage frivolity. My student looked at me with eyes filled with such bone crushing sadness, looking to me for some kind of guidance, and I thought back to you. I hugged my student close and I told them that it was going to be ok. I told them that I loved them, and respected them, and would fight for them no matter what because that’s what you taught me. That is what Samford taught me. When I took my oaths to be sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, to sign away two years of my life in foreign country where dangers can lurk around every corner, I dedicated my service to the perpetuation of human compassion. Because that is what Samford taught me. And I hope that maybe, in response to all that you have given me, I can serve as a humble reminder of that lesson.

Thank you so much, for everything.

Best regards,
Paige Van de Vuurst, Class of 2016

Brit Blalock