Hollins University Announces Largest Donation Ever for a Women’s College 

Hollins University, one of the country’s oldest institutions of higher education for women, announced today that it has received a $75 million gift from an anonymous alumna. This is the largest single gift in Hollins’ history and the largest donation ever received by a women’s college. In addition, it represents one of the largest single donations ever given to a college or university solely by a female donor, as well as one of the largest ever to a small liberal arts college.

The gift will establish the Levavi Oculos Endowed Scholarship Fund, which will exclusively fund scholarships and address undergraduate financial need for Hollins’ undergraduate students. Unlike most major donations which become active at a future date or only over a long period of time, this gift will be provided in $25 million increments to the Hollins endowment over the next three fiscal years, beginning no later than June 30, 2022.

“This gift is such a profound and powerful statement about the value of higher education for women,” said President Mary Dana Hinton. “The transformational educational opportunities created by it will have a visible and sustained impact for generations of women to come at Hollins. Most of all, this generosity will enable future students who otherwise would not be able to attend college to access that opportunity.”


Gifts at this level, at a school of Hollins’ size, have outsized impact on issues of accessibility for traditionally underserved and limited-income students. “The need for an educated citizenry and women’s leadership development is greater now than ever, yet higher education access is more challenging than ever,” Hinton continued. “This gift allows Hollins to be able to provide greater access, now and into the future. We are proud to be a steward of this gift and to be able to touch the future in this way.”

Financial security and long-term stability are critically important issues for women’s colleges like Hollins, whose numbers have declined from more than 200 in the 1960s to fewer than 40 today.

The donor, a Hollins alumna, agreed: “Hollins’ mission and the value of its enduring presence and direction as a progressive institution were the catalyst for my gift and the urgency of making the funds available immediately. It ensures Hollins can move forward, with confidence, as an institution committed to women and the liberal arts.”

Hollins, founded in 1842, has become an institution of access and support for many students today. Currently, the undergraduate student body is 36% low-income, 34% first generation, and 30% students of color.

$75M Donor Rock
Students painted The Rock in gratitude to the anonymous alumna who has given a $75 million gift to Hollins.

The transformative nature of this gift will help build a greater foundation of long-term equity and inclusion for Hollins, noted Alexandra Trower ’86, chair of the Hollins University Board of Trustees. “The gift strongly reaffirms the importance of our mission and will help Hollins further its commitment to equity and inclusion in the coming years.”

The first $25 million installment will establish the Levavi Oculos Endowed Scholarship Fund in support of scholarships for undergraduate students beginning in the fall of 2023. By the 2025-26 academic year, Hollins estimates that a minimum of 125 students – just under 20% of the current undergraduate student body – will benefit from this gift.



Mary E. “Mary Beth” Hatten ’71 Elected to the National Academy of Medicine

A Hollins alumna has received one of the most notable tributes in the fields of health and medicine.

Mary Elizabeth “Mary Beth” Hatten ’71, Frederick P. Rose Professor and head of the Laboratory of Developmental Neurobiology at The Rockefeller University in New York City, has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM). The honorific society features more than 2,000 members chosen by their peers in recognition of outstanding achievement.

In announcing the recognition, The Rockefeller University noted that Hatten’s research “has shed light on the mechanisms of neuronal differentiation and migration in the cerebellar cortex. During development, neurons must travel from their birth sites to their proper adult locations in an intricate concert of molecular, genetic, and spatial events. Mapping these processes – and how they can go awry – is essential to understanding various brain diseases and developmental abnormalities, including childhood epilepsy and medulloblastoma, a prevalent metastatic brain tumor that affects children and originates during embryonic development.”

Hatten joined Rockefeller in 1992 and was appointed the university’s first female full professor and the first female to lead a research laboratory there. “Early in her career, using innovative real-time imaging, Hatten demonstrated how developing neurons migrate along the lines of glial cells, supportive cells of the nervous system that are implicated in disease pathology,” the university said. “Her research has revealed various molecular regulators of migration, including Astn1, which is a receptor critical for glial-guided migration, and Astn2, which was recently shown to facilitate efficient brain activity and has been identified as a risk factor in neurodevelopmental disorders when mutated. Another key discovery from the Hatten lab was mPar6, which helps control the speed of neuronal migration along glial fibers. Most recently, Hatten has been exploring how changes in the DNA-packaging complex chromatin help guide formation of the cerebellum, the part of the brain that enables learning and the execution of complex movements.”

The announcement of Hatten’s election to NAM also noted her work in co-creating GENSAT, the Gene Expression Nervous System Atlas, in 2003. “This genetic atlas of the mammalian brain is a critical resource for labs worldwide that are researching the central nervous system.”

Hatten was one of a trio of Rockefeller researchers to earn NAM membership this year. “Each of these remarkable scientists has reached important milestones by boldly following the most interesting and pressing scientific questions of our times,” said Richard P. Lifton, the university’s president. “I am immensely proud to be a colleague of these three great Rockefeller faculty and delighted that they are receiving this prestigious honor.”

During her distinguished career, Hatten has received many other accolades, including the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience Investigator Award; the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award; and a Faculty Award for Women Scientists and Engineers from the National Science Foundation. In 2015 she was presented the prestigious Max Cowan Award, which honors a neuroscientist for outstanding work in developmental neuroscience, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2017. She is also a recipient of the Hollins Distinguished Alumnae Award and was the featured speaker at Hollins’ 175th commencement exercises.

Photo Credit: The Rockefeller University

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Word ‘No’”: Students Gain Insight and Encouragement at 10th Annual C3

Entrepreneur and educator LaNita Jefferson ’07 assured Hollins students, “You can make your own tables. You don’t have to wait for someone to invite you to a seat at the table,” during the 10th annual Career Connection Conference (C3), September 30 and October 1.

Jefferson was the keynote speaker for this year’s event, which welcomed alumnae/i from across the country to showcase the lifelong power of a liberal arts education, share their insights on life and work, and help students connect to others in their networks. Thirty-five alumnae volunteered their time and talents to serve virtually as conference leaders for 2021.

“What a momentous and important occasion to celebrate the deep and engaging connection between the liberal arts and career success, and the critically important link between our alumnae/i and current students,” said Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton.

C3 2021 began on Thursday, September 30, with networking, mock interviews, and a program on “Identity in the Workplace” featuring guest speaker Krishna Davenport ’96, an activist and advocate for the equal treatment of Black women in the workplace, specifically Black mothers. On Friday, October 1, C3 presented sessions covering a range of career fields, including Global Health; Business, Finance, and Data; Driven by Mission: Working in Nonprofits; Museums and Archives; Landing in Unexpected Industries; and Entertainment and Media.

Jefferson is a licensed professional counselor, adjunct professor, and social justice activist in Columbia, South Carolina, whose goal is to raise awareness of the benefits of mental health to marginalized communities. She told a Hollins Theatre audience that she considers herself “a determined person. I have goals that I make attainable and I achieve them, I believe in what I can do and I believe in myself. As my husband once said, ‘Whenever you say you’re going to do something, you do it.’”

But she admitted she didn’t always have that mindset. “There was a time when I felt I wasn’t good enough for certain things” including college. “I felt that I wasn’t smart enough. So what changed my mind and was the beginning of me believing I can do what I want to do? That actually happened right here on the Hollins campus.”

LaNita Jefferson C3
Entrepreneur and educator LaNita Jefferson ’07 delivered the keynote address at C3 2021.

Jefferson described how she was deeply homesick throughout her first year at Hollins. When she returned for her sophomore year, her unhappiness persisted. “I made up my mind that I’m just not the type of person who belongs in college. I decided I was going to go back home, get a job, and hang out with my friends – that’s all I felt I deserved and all I felt I needed to do to be happy.”

Jefferson met with her academic advisor, then-Professor of Sociology William Nye. “‘Sounds like you have a plan there, LaNita,’” she recalled him saying after she explained her decision to leave Hollins. “Then he said to me, ‘So what are you afraid of? Are you afraid to experience anything different from what you are used to experiencing? Are you afraid of what potential Hollins is going to unleash? Tell me, what’s your biggest fear?’”

Afterward, Jefferson said she thought a lot about Nye’s questions. Ultimately, she admitted to herself, “I was afraid. I was really afraid to do anything different outside of what I was used to at home. And then something happened: I challenged myself to show I’m not afraid and I’m willing to try different things.”

Jefferson said she began speaking up more in class and “talking to people who didn’t look like me.” She got involved in leadership positions with Hollins’ Black Student Alliance and other multicultural organizations on campus. “I just told myself, ‘I’m gonna give it shot. I’m gonna give it a real chance.’ I felt like I owed it to myself. I fought for what I wanted.”

After graduating from Hollins, Jefferson spent three years working in various positions before getting what she called her first “big girl job.” She loved it. “It was my first insight into mental health and I knew this was what I needed to do to figure out how to become a therapist.” A promotion at first heightened her optimism, “but I started changing. My mental health declined.” She began having trouble eating and sleeping, and she would often have to pull her car over to the side of the road on her way to work because she was having panic attacks. Finally, she was called in to meet with her supervisor.

“I got fired, y’all. Most people would be upset by that, but I was so relieved. I needed that door to close so that I could realize there were other doors already open. I needed them to push me out.”

As she got in her car to leave that day, “I sat there for a while and then something came over me. I said, ‘LaNita, you will never ever let another job or another person come in front of your mental health again. You are worthy, you have a voice, and you will use it. You will make another opportunity for yourself. You deserve that.”

For Jefferson, that opportunity manifested itself in her pursuit of a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. “I immersed myself in becoming a really good counselor who could help people medically and mentally. It was my calling.” She focused her sights on opening her own private practice to provide holistic mental health in her community, but in addition to completing her graduate degree she would also need to pass a licensure exam. The first time she took it, she failed, but she remained undaunted. “I had heard the word ‘no’ so many times: ‘No, you can’t do this.’ ‘No, you shouldn’t think that way.’ I was so used to the word ‘no’ that I wasn’t afraid of it anymore. All ‘no’ means is to try again.”

When Jefferson took the licensure exam a second time, she decided to do it on her birthday. Her anxiety was high, and when breathing exercises didn’t help calm her down, she sought encouragement from her favorite rap song, “Juicy” by Biggie Smalls. “There’s just something about how that song hits your soul. It’s all about success and trying hard and celebrating the good things in your life. The chorus says you know very well who you are and no one can hold you down. Reach for the stars. Believe in yourself and dream as big as you want.”

Jefferson passed the exam, and with her friend, colleague, and business partner, opened Carolina Assessment Services LLC in 2019. As of today, the practice has served over 200 people in South Carolina. This year, she launched The Cohort LLC with another friend as a means of empowering others to fulfill their dreams through entrepreneurship. Currently, she’s a Ph.D. candidate in counselor education at the University of South Carolina.

“What I’m trying to do is help make space for people like you, students like you, that may be afraid to tap into your potential. That may be afraid to step outside of the box. It’s okay to find and create opportunity. It’s okay to be you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be yourself and believe in yourself. And don’t be afraid of the word ‘no.’”



“We All Need to Breathe”: The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale ‘75 Counters Pandemic Anxiety with Mindfulness

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale ‘75 likes watches.

For years, the founding and senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, has collected time pieces in every shape, color, and style. Watches became an essential part of her wardrobe.

When Ray of Hope’s women’s ministry presented Hale with an Apple Watch, it was a game changer. As a fashion statement, the watch’s interchangeable bands meant she didn’t need to wear a different watch with different outfits. What’s more, she said, “Whatever I need and want to do is on my Apple Watch. I can answer my phone, read and respond to email and texts, program an exercise routine, store my credit cards. I haven’t even come close to naming all the things I can do because I’ve yet to discover them all.”

One of the most enduring discoveries she made occurred in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. On a day when she was besieged with worry about the well-being of her congregation and others and grieving over the losses she was personally experiencing, “my watch suddenly vibrated and said, ‘breathe.’ It told me I would have a better day if I took a moment to breathe. I said to myself, ‘This watch is clairvoyant. It knew exactly what I needed when I needed it.’”

The act of simply breathing on a regular basis was part of the wisdom Hale shared recently with an audience of Hollins students, faculty, and staff in her presentation “Mindfulness Matters: Physical, Emotional, and Mental Well-Being in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond.” Hale explained the state of mindfulness with a definition from scientist, writer, and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is awareness cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and careful way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

The often overwhelming stress of daily life has been amplified by anxiety over the pandemic and the future generally, and Hale warned of becoming “‘human doings’ rather than ‘human beings,’ never taking time to enjoy, learn, and love while in the moment. When you’re always busy moving from one thing to the next, you fail to pay attention to what is happening to you in the moment.”

Hale went on to describe the debilitating aspects of stress. “It robs you of energy and the opportunity to live life to its fullest. It can lead to cardiovascular issues, decreased immune function, and an increase in recovery time from illness. When you’re stressed, you have a problem concentrating and thinking clearly, affecting your ability to learn and produce. It makes you irritable and hard to deal with.”

As a counterbalance, Hale urged “living in the present, in the now, and stewarding the gift of life we’ve been given. First and foremost is loving ourselves, which involves knowing ourselves. Each of us must learn to affirm our dignity and worth.”

Mindfulness is particularly challenging for women, Hale said, “because we don’t always know who we’re supposed to be. The world and people around us have certain standards and expectations about how we should look, act, think, react. When you allow the desires of others to determine who and what you will be, you rob them of the joy of being and receiving from the real you, who is vibrant and alive and exciting and valuable to the relationship. The world needs somebody with your intellect, your intuition, your creativity, and your ingenuity to show them what being a powerful woman is all about.”

Along with championing breathing as “essential to our well-being, not just physically but mentally and emotionally,” Hale offered these suggestions for achieving mindfulness:

  • Accept, believe in, and celebrate who you are. “See yourself in the future: Where do you want to go? Who do you want to be? What gives you joy? The sky is the limit to what you can be and what you can do. Don’t be afraid to try something new and different. Give yourself to the process of being who you were created to be.”
  • Take care of yourself. “Get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, eat right, and exercise regularly. But, you must also learn to be still. When was the last time you just sat still and listened to the creative stirrings of your heart, the singing of the birds, the rustling of the wind through the trees? Doing nothing at regular times, experiencing calm in the wonder of it all, is healthy.”
  • Seek times of solitude. “Solitude is an investment. It is a time to recharge your emotional, your physical, your spiritual batteries. A time to dream, a time to imaging the possibilities of your life, a time to get in touch with yourself. Solitude is a time to gain insight or a solution to a pressing problem.”
  • Listen deeply. “Simply to refrain from talking without listening is not silence. Inner solitude and inner silence are inseparable. The purpose of silence and solitude is to be able to see and hear with one’s heart and not simply one’s ear. It is cultivating an intimacy with your inner life as it unfolds.”
  • Be intentional about acknowledging your grief and your loss, especially during the pandemic. “One of the most devastating effects of this pandemic is the loss that we’ve all experienced in so many ways: loved ones, colleagues, friends, and classmates, the loss of people we didn’t even know but nevertheless are part of the human family. Loss must be grieved in a healthy and mature way. Mindfulness is sitting with our pain whether we like the way it feels or not. It allows us to learn, to grow, to mature, to heal, to be delivered.”
  • Embrace your limits. “We cannot do everything we want to do whenever we want to do it. Much of what happens to us is beyond our control. Limits are really gifts from God to keep us humble and to ground us. Limits remind us that we are of the earth and we have to stay committed and connected to the earth. Realize that life isn’t perfect. There will be pain and disappointment. We must live with it and learn the lessons it teaches us.”

Hale concluded with a message that “given all that we’ve been through as a nation and a world over the last 18 to 20 months, we need one another to help affirm our common humanity. We need one another to navigate through the continued uncertainty of the effects of this pandemic. We can’t make it without the other, and we have to learn how to be kind. Kindness is a state of being that includes the attributes of loving, affection, sympathy, feeling for another, and identifying with one another.”

A native of Roanoke, Hale graduated from Hollins with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music, and went on to complete a Master of Divinity degree at Duke University and a Doctor of Ministry at Union Theological Seminary. She holds five honorary Doctorates of Divinity and an honorary Doctor of Law degree. Because of her leadership and foresight, Ray of Hope Christian Church has been cited in the book, Excellent Protestant Congregations: A Guide to Best Places and Practices.

Hale has been inducted into the African American Biographies Hall of Fame and the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers. She has been honored by the National Urban League and is a recipient of the inaugural “Women of Power” award. Ebony magazine placed her among its Power 100, a yearly compilation of the most influential African Americans in the country.

In 2009, Hale was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. She also served as a member of the 2016 Platform Committee for the Democratic National Convention and delivered the invocation at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Hale serves on the Hollins University Board of Trustees. She is also chairperson of the IC3 Conference Board; chairperson of the Board of Trustees of Beulah Heights University; vice president for the Hampton University Ministers’ Conference; a member of the Board of Visitors of the Divinity School at Duke University; a member of the UNCF NFI Advisory Council; and a member of the Welcome.US Council.





Alumnae/i Offer Sage Advice to New Hollins Students

To celebrate the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year, the Hollins Alumnae Association took to social media to ask alumnae/i: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to new Hollins students? 

Not surprisingly, the responses were plentiful, creative, thoughtful, and most of all, full of joy and excitement for the newest members of the Hollins family. Here’s a sampling:

“Talk to everyone. These people will be the best friends you’ll ever have.”

“Go to office hours and get to know your professors! They are fantastic human beings in addition to being wonderful instructors.”

“Enjoy your time at Hollins! Those four years will go by so quickly and will be some of the best years of your life. Milk for all it’s worth. Participate in as many traditions/events as possible. And take loooooooots of photos!”

“Make sure to communicate with your classmates and professors! If you’re not understanding a concept, are struggling, or need help, let them know!”

“Go to the new student events with an open mind and heart even if you don’t feel like going. You’ll make some lifelong friends!”

“Follow your passion and learn all you can! Take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to you.”

“Make good friends…lifelong friendships are the best.”

“Study outside as much as you can as it is likely one of the most beautiful places and views you may ever have while you ‘work.’ And meet as many people as you can – smile and say ‘hi’ to all.”

“It’s okay if you are totally different than how you were in high school. Be open and forgiving to yourself and others. There’s so much change and adjusting for everyone!”

“Just enjoy each other, the campus…Tinker [Mountain], and beauty that surrounds!”

“Take advantage of all that Hollins has to offer including meeting people outside your own experiences. Sit on the porches of Main often just to soak up the beauty of Hollins. Enjoy your time at Hollins because it will fly by fast.”

“Be open minded…everything’s an experience from which to learn, and go to all your classes!”

“Take advantage of everything Hollins has to offer. Do not limit yourself, say yes! Because this is the time to try new things with such a support system to catch you if you fall.”

“Levavi oculos! Make the most of the years you are going to spend in the best place ever. Learn, make lifelong friends, enjoy, grow and…have fun!”

“Read the Student Handbook!!!!”

“Make time for rest, remember to laugh, and don’t take yourself too seriously!”

“Gallop horses in the mornings, swim in the afternoons, write poetry in French, plan to take that year or semester abroad, practice piano in Bradley on that fantastic Steinway until security wants to lock up at 9 p.m. (they’ll sit in the back and listen for awhile before checking their watches and telling you it’s over), but most of all: eat the blueberry pie. For breakfast. Eat pie. The best pie ever.”

“Enjoy it all! It feels like forever but goes by so fast.”

“Do all the things you’re afraid to do – go abroad, ride a horse, climb a mountain.”

“Get involved!! Join a club, sport, theatre, music, whatever your interests are. Hollins is what you make it, and so much personal growth can happen if you are willing to take a risk.”

“Treasure this time and use mindfulness to stay present. These years fly by! Don’t worry too much about the finish line, just live in the moment!”

“…the hard classes are the best ones because that’s how you learn, grow and challenge yourself.”

“…remember that college isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

“It’s okay to sleep. There’s no prize for all nighters, take care of your brain.”

“Soak it all up, time there goes by too fast!”

“DO be open to new people, places, ideas, and things. Some of these will surprise, shape, and support you in ways you can’t begin to imagine.”

“Go on a hike! You’ll miss those mountains later!”

“Don’t commit to too much at once. Choose one or two things. Tend to your spiritual life.”

“When you’re having a tough day, look up. The motto isn’t ‘Levavi oculos’ for nothing….”

“Get outside your comfort zone! It’s now or never.”

“Dream bigger than you think possible – you’ll be surprised at what is possible at Hollins!”

“Have a healthy work/play balance…now and forever!”

“Everything you never thought you would do (fencing, hiking, traveling abroad) DO IT!!!!”

“Try one new thing a week!”

“Smile and speak to everyone.”

“Spend time on the porch in the rocking chairs!”

“Come back whenever you can after graduation.”



Obamas to Produce New Netflix Project Based on Collection Co-Written by Dhonielle Clayton M.A. ’09

In 2020, Dhonielle Clayton M.A. ’09, an alumna of Hollins University’s graduate programs in children’s literature, joined with five other bestselling African American young adult authors to create Blackout, a collection of stories about Black teenagers navigating love during a power outage in New York City.

Now, Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions is partnering with fellow production company Temple Hill (Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars, Fatherhood) to develop Blackout as what The Hollywood Reporter (THR) describes as “a film and TV ‘event'” for Netflix. “The project,” THR explains, “is being developed concurrently as a TV series and film adaptation. That means that some of the six stories could wind up in the film, while others are in the TV show.”

Netflix says of the project, “From the perspective of 12 teens with six shots at love, Blackout takes place as a heatwave blankets New York City in darkness and causes an electric chaos. When the lights go out and people reveal hidden truths, love blossoms, friendships transform, and all possibilities take flight.”

In addition to Clayton, Blackout features stories by Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon. Since its publication in June, the collection has earned wide acclaim. NPR’s review states, “In Blackout, young Black love with all its insecurities, mistakes, emotion, honesty, and humanity makes for a lush read. Even amidst their fears, these characters are wonderfully respectful of each other’s choices. You will root for them all to find their own right love at their own right time. And though it was written for young adults, Blackout is a must-read for all generations.” Publishers Weekly calls it a “joyful collaboration” that “brings a necessary elation to stories of Black love, queer love, and alternative forms of affection, all of which are all tenderly highlighted in these narratives.” And, the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books remarks, “There’s plenty to smile, sigh, or swoon at here, and readers will happily keep the lights on to see these charming romances to the end.”

All six of Blackout‘s authors are on board as screenwriters for the Netflix adaptation. An air date has not been announced.

Blackout will be Clayton’s second association with Netflix. In 2019, the internet TV network ordered 10 episodes of Tiny Pretty Things, an hour-long series based on the novel co-written by Clayton and Sona Charaipotra. The first season of the series premiered in December 2020 and follows the triumphs and challenges of students at an elite dance academy where the competition to succeed is fierce.

Originally from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., Clayton holds a B.A. from Wake Forest University. After earning her M.A. in children’s literature at Hollins, she completed her M.F.A. in creative writing at The New School. A former secondary school teacher and elementary and middle school librarian, she is co-founder of CAKE Literary, which is described as “a creative kitchen whipping up decadent – and decidedly diverse – literary confections for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers,” and is also chief operating officer of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. Her other works include The Belles (her debut solo novel, released in 2018) and The Everlasting Rose (Book Two in The Belles series, published in 2019). She has also contributed to the story collections Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America; Meet Cute: Some People Are Destined to Meet; and Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens. Her middle grade fantasy series, The Marvellers, is forthcoming. She joined the faculty of Hollins’ graduate programs in children’s literature in 2020.





M.F.A. in Creative Writing Alumna Welcomes Launch Of Debut Novel “Leda and the Swan”

Anna Caritj M.F.A ’16 never imagined that the manuscript she started years ago while earning her master’s degree at Hollins would sell, once finished, within just a couple of days. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Now, two weeks shy of the virtual launch of her debut novel Leda and the Swan, Caritj is still getting used to a new life as a published author. 

“It all happened very fast,” said Caritj. “My agent started shopping the book around and within 48 hours we had an offer from Riverhead Books. It was a whirlwind, not at all what I was expecting.”

Leda and the Swan is a kind of mash-up: a collegiate coming-of-age tale mixed with classic suspense and, of course, some references to Greek mythology. The novel opens at a raucous, on-campus Halloween party and follows the titular character Leda who believes herself to be the last person to have seen her classmate Charlotte (dressed in a swan costume) before her disappearance on Halloween night. Waking up hung-over the following morning, Leda soon feels that she must solve the mystery of what happened to Charlotte as well as piece together the memories from the blacked-out night that she spent with her crush (and Charlotte’s ex), Ian Gray.

Even though she finished a first draft while earning her M.F.A. in creative writing at Hollins, and spent another two years polishing and editing the manuscript, the core idea of Leda and the Swan actually cameLeda and the Swan Book Cover to Caritj during her time as an undergraduate studying Spanish and English literature at the University of Virginia in her hometown of Charlottesville. Specifically, it was a massive mural by famed artist Lincoln Perry called “The Student’s Progress” that first gave Caritj inspiration to write about her own college experience. “[Perry] was working on the mural while I was a student, and I was always passing it on my way to choir rehearsals,” recalled Caritj. “It’s her whole life painted on the wall there, and the thing I liked about that mural is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the college experience. It touches on the complexity of it. We don’t just sort of track this woman’s academic progress. We also see her emotional development—we see her in wild and vulnerable moments. So I wanted to capture that in the same way that Perry did in his painting.”

Skip ahead to grad school and during her first year at Hollins’ Jackson Center for Creative Writing, Caritj started developing a rough version of the novel, then called Let Her Drop, taken from the last words of a W. B. Yeats poem also entitled “Leda and the Swan.” However, it wasn’t until her second-year tutorial with poet, essayist, and Hollins Professor of English Richard Dillard that Caritj got a better feel for the work-in-progress. “Richard’s such a great teacher,” said Caritj. “He’s able to get a sense for what kind of a novel you want to be writing as opposed to the kind of novel he wants to be reading, and that’s a very difficult thing to separate.”

Caritj’s time at Hollins (and Dillard’s sharp readerly eye) clearly paid off. Leda and the Swan was released on May 4 to high praise—TIME called the debut an “affecting narrative about consent, power and loneliness”—and Caritj is currently preparing for the book’s official virtual launch on May 27 with One More Page Books in Arlington. Over the summer, Caritj will participate in a spread of virtual events (a kind of online “book tour”). As if this weren’t enough to keep her busy, Caritj has already finished a rough draft for a completely different second project about a group of female friends reckoning with adolescence.

However, Caritj’s not letting all of the sudden success go to her head. “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” she said. “It’s important to be proud of your work and to stand behind what you’ve created. But, at the same time, if you’re not willing to dismantle your creation—to shake things up, to try something new, to push yourself into uncharted territory—you’ll never make any progress. Out of all the young writers I’ve known, the ones that make the most progress are the ones willing to take a sledgehammer to their work.”


Jeff Dingler is a graduate assistant in Hollins’ marketing and communications department. He is pursuing his M.F.A. in creative writing at the university.



Hollins Alumna’s Debut Book Gives Hope, Resources for Children with Hearing Loss

Valerie James Abbott ’93 panicked when she learned that her two-year-old daughter Bridget mysteriously lost her hearing. More than ten years later, she is out with a new book about her experience with the aim of supporting families on a similar journey.

Published by KWE Publishing on May 4, Padapillo is an illustrated children’s storybook, offering hope and information to families experiencing early childhood hearing loss. “I understand first-hand what happens to children if their hearing loss goes unidentified,” Abbott said. “We didn’t notice the signs and now I am passionate about helping other parents in a similar situation. As a parent-champion for early hearing detection and intervention, I have talked to many families who are desperate for answers, advice, information, and emotional support just like I was.”

Children who acquire hearing loss after birth are at risk of developmental delays. As most parents, Abbott wanted to do everything she could for her child, but found it very difficult to navigate the situation and locate the right information and resources. As her daughter grew up, her needs also changed. Abbott continuously learned about hearing loss, language acquisition and choices, and disability rights, and connected with other families.

“I wrote the book with all these things in mind. I want parents to have a relatable story to help them see that their questions, doubts, and worries are normal, including feelings of guilt, grieving, acceptance, and joy. I also wanted to create a starting place of practical resources, so there’s an index of organizations and agencies at the back of the book.”

Padapillo is named after one of the many words Abbott’s daughter invented before her hearing loss was identified and before she received hearing aids. It was a speech delay that prompted their daughter’sPadapillo Book Cover preschool teacher to suspect something was going on.

“I wrote Padapillo hoping that audiologists could have a stack in their drawers and hand it out to families along with the final audiogram results,” Abbott explained. “This would open up communication and at the same time provide a story of hope and a resource tool.”

Bridget is now 15 and thriving. The two years following her identification were challenging, as she worked hard to catch up developmentally to her peers, but having received a correct diagnosis, early intervention support, and focused support from her family, she’s done well in a mainstream classroom setting and in daily life.

“My message to everyone who is going through the same experience as I did is that there is hope. Your child is capable of amazing things. Whatever your feelings are, they are valid and it’s okay to be pushy to get the information and support you need,” Abbott said.

Padapillo is written through the lens of Valerie’s oldest child Mary Clare, who was in kindergarten when her little sister received her first pair of hearing aids. In the book, the older sibling sees and hears everything that is going on with Bridget – much more so than the parents.

“The book is fictional, but based on our true story of how we discovered and came to terms with Bridget’s situation and our feelings about it,” Abbott stated. “Every single nugget and situation in there is true, from how I started ‘testing’ Bridget’s hearing after the hearing test to see if this was really true, to watching her reactions as she started hearing the new sounds around her for the first time.”

Abbott has served on the board of Virginia Hands & Voices, is the first parent co-chair of the Virginia EHDI Advisory Committee, and has received the Governor’s Award for Civilian Excellence for Virginia Fire Safety, spearheading special programming for families of children who are deaf and hard of hearing. She is a guest blogger for the Center for Family Involvement and has published several articles online and in print about raising a child with a disability that have gained nationwide attention. Padapillo is her first book.

On Thursday, May 20, Hollins’ alumnae chapter in Richmond, Virginia, will present a virtual reading and conversation with Abbott at 7 p.m. EDT. Register for this event.


Friendship, Empowerment Triumph Over Bad Dates in New Picture Book by Children’s Lit Alumna

When Rebekah Manley M.F.A. ’11 set out to create not only her first book but one designed to defy the standards of a whole genre, her chosen muse was none other than one of Hollins’ best-known graduates and one of America’s most distinguished children’s writers.

“I like to think I channeled the spunky spirit of Margaret Wise Brown (a member of Hollins’ class of 1932 and the author of Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, and other timeless children’s classics) as I broke through the expectations of what a picture book ‘should be’ and wrote the one I wanted to read,” the Austin, Texas-based author explains. “One for adults that might break the mold a bit.”

The result is Alexandra and the Awful, Awkward, No Fun, Truly Bad Dates: A Picture Book Parody for Adults, published this fall by Ulysses Press. This hilarious take on dating horror stories, in which the title character embarks on 30 bad dates in 30 days, is also at its core a heartwarming tale.

“Ultimately, it’s a story about friendship and empowerment,” says Manley, who runs the Texas Center for the Book and works to encourage literacy, reading, and library use in the Lone Star State.

Alexandra’s story blends fiction with Manley’s own real-life misadventures. “Honestly, there were some dates I’ve experienced that seemed too ‘unbelievable’ for the book,” she explains. During one of Alexandra’s disastrous dinner dates, “Her date insisted she get prime rib – and that women should just accept the wage gap. ‘Your brains are just different,’ he mansplained. Alex grabbed her steak to go and let him enjoy the financial success of buying her meal.”

Manley praises Catalina Oliveira, the book’s illustrator, for “bringing this book to life with warmth. I’m grateful she was onboard to add a special character I created, Lottie the French bulldog. Lottie has her own unique role, even though she is never mentioned in the text.”

Authors and illustrators typically don’t communicate directly while a picture book is in progress, so Manley and Oliveira’s editor served as the go-between. “It’s always important to give the illustrator space to Alexandra and the Awful, Awkward, No Fun, Truly Bad Datescreate and I didn’t want anything I said to stifle her creativity. We were, however, on a tight deadline and my editor wanted me to give a lot more feedback and direction that might normally occur in creating picture books for children.” As a bonus for readers, Manley reveals there are a number of “Easter eggs,” or almost hidden illustrations, placed throughout Alexandra and the Awful, Awkward, No Fun, Truly Bad Dates: A Picture Book Parody for Adults. “It might take a few reads for people to discover them – they mostly center around friendships in the book.”

Manley also cites her time at Hollins, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in children’s literature “and believed I would become an author. My professors were so knowledgeable and supportive. Hollins gave me that immersive creative experience I needed to dream, hone my craft, and get a solid portfolio of work together. The ‘magic’ felt almost palpable, and I’ll always be grateful for the green and gold foundation.”

Alexandra and the Awful, Awkward, No Fun, Truly Bad Dates: A Picture Book Parody for Adults has earned rave reviews.

“In this funny, clever, rueful, and ultimately uplifting picture book parody, debut author Rebekah Manley taps into universal anxieties about loneliness and singledom while addressing the special agony of dating apps for today’s single woman,” says Amy Gentry, bestselling author of Good as Gone and Last Woman Standing, while Bethany Hegedus, author of Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou, notes, “What we all need right now is a connection and a good laugh. With humor and heart, Rebekah Manley’s Alexandra and the Awful, Awkward, No Fun, Truly Bad Dates: A Picture Book Parody for Adults has both.”

Manley believes her book can be enjoyed and appreciated as a shared experience. “I hope people will buy and read this with their single friends and family members and be reminded: yes, the dating struggle is real, but there is a whole lot of humor and goodness along the way.

“I also think this is a book our Hollins sisters will enjoy – those central themes of friendship and empowerment are two pieces that rang loud and clear from my education there.”

She adds, laughing, “And maybe people will read this and get some info on what NOT to do on a date!”

“Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir” by Natasha Trethewey M.A. ’91 Shortlisted for Carnegie Medals for Excellence

The American Library Association (ALA) has announced that Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Pulitzer Prize winner and two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey M.A. ’91 is one of six finalists for the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction.

The awards recognize the previous year’s best fiction and nonfiction books written for adult readers and published in the United States, and are intended to serve as a guide to help adults select quality reading material. The two medal winners will be recognized at the Reference and User Services Association’s Book and Media Awards event, which will be held online on February 4, 2021. Winners will each receive $5,000. All finalists will be honored during a celebratory event in the summer of 2021 during the ALA Annual Conference.

The ALA calls Memorial Drive “a work of exquisitely distilled anguish and elegiac drama. Trethewey confronts the horror of her mother’s murder through finely honed, evermore harrowing memories, dreams, visions, and musings. She writes, ‘To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it.’ And tell her tragic story she does in this lyrical, courageous, and resounding remembrance.”

Established in 2012, the Carnegie Medals for Excellence are the first single-book awards for adult books presented by the ALA and reflect the judgment and insight of library professionals and booksellers who work closely with adult readers. Made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Medals are co-sponsored by Booklist, the ALA’s book review magazine.