Praising the Family Atmosphere, Alumni Recall Fond Memories of Averett University at Annual Founders’ Day Celebration

Posted on February 4th, 2022 by Matt Bell

Averett University held its annual Founders’ Day celebration Thursday, Feb. 3, before an in-person and virtual audience from Pritchett Auditorium in the Violet T. Frith Fine Arts Center.

The speakers for Founders’ Day this year included James Contreras ’18, Libby Westphal ’01 and Dr. Roberta Thayer-Smith ’74. Student Government Association Junior Class President Morgan Dearing delivered a charge to students during the celebration.

Contreras, serving in the United States Marine Corps at MCAS Cherry Point as a budget officer, told students that while he was excited to attend Averett and knew after one visit the University would be where he would attend, he let his grades slip and came dangerously close to losing a semester of men’s basketball.

“Averett shaped me into becoming a better person and man,” Contreras said.

During his pursuit for a bachelor’s degree in accounting, he found himself having to change his friends and find a different approach for his academics.

“I didn’t make the best choices. I thought about everything except grades and it came to the point where I was going to miss a semester of basketball because of grades,” Contreras said.

James credited his wife, Hannah Contreras ’18, with whipping him into shape. He went on to say that his coaches saw something in him that he didn’t see in himself, and his advisor, Professor and Chair of Business Administration Dr. Peggy Wright, was so motivating and wanted to see him succeed.

“At Averett, you’re not just a student, you’re not just an athlete. You’re part of a family. The people on the right and left of you are going to help you grow just as much as you’re going to help them grow,” James said.

While the trip into Danville when first visiting Averett wasn’t appealing at first with industrial scenes along a polluted Dan River, she said it was big, white pillars of Averett’s Main Hall and the welcome she received at the University that set her undergraduate career in motion.

She has since hosted Averett events in Yorktown and in Danville, was an adjunct professor in the Averett Online program and has served Averett as an active member of the Averett University Alumni Association Board. She recently was awarded the Mary Jo Davis Outstanding Alumni Award.

Thayer-Smith compared Averett to that of a third eye, which is part of Buddhist belief.

“Averett saw me before I saw myself… My major was elementary education and my professors saw in me reading abilities to help students… they even entrusted me to care for their homes and pets in the summer time,” Thayer-Smith said.

After graduation, Thayer-Smith became heavily involved in the life of the University and helped establish the Averett Alumni Association.

“Great things happen when Averett alumni get together, and we look forward to what we can do for our alma mater,” Thayer-Smith said.

Westphal is an Averett Online graduate with a master’s in business administration. During her speech, the four-time ovarian cancer survivor, mother, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, veteran advocate and community volunteer noted one of her regrets in life was not walking during commencement in 2001.

“I studied at a site in Washington, D.C. with a core group around 25 people. When I realized I had finished, I was a little embarrassed it had taken me so long to finish… it took decades,” Westphal said.

However, she was proud her professional career and journey all these years later led her back to the University.

While she knew she didn’t want to be a farmer, a lifestyle she grew up in, Westphal said Averett served as the catalyst for her professional career.

Dearing, in her charge to students, said she found exactly what she was searching for when she decided to attend Averett. The elementary education major said she sought a college that would support her academically and athletically, and her coaches kept in constant contact to make sure she had what she needed.

It was after her first week at Averett she decided to become a Connection Leader, which is a person who helps new students on campus, “fall in love with the University as I did,” in Dearing’s own words.

“My advice to students is to get involved as much as you can. Morgan four years ago wouldn’t be comfortable doing everything I am doing now. Averett made me want to be involved,” Dearing said, adding, “It goes without saying, I am always grateful for the founders at Averett because without them, I wouldn’t be who I am today… While I am excited for my senior year, I am hoping it goes slowly because I am not ready to leave my home away from home.”

Noting many important and necessary changes to the University over its 163 year history, Averett President Dr. Tiffany Franks said one constant has been the success professors have provided for students to earn their degrees.

“[Danville Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Angela Hairston] once said, ‘I’m forever indebted to the professors and support staff at Averett College, now Averett University, because you changed the lives of so many of my cousins and siblings … because they knew if I could finish, they could finish,’” Franks said referencing Hairston’s speech from the 2021 Founders’ Day celebration.

Franks said it was the support and individualized help which enabled a successful education for Hairston at Averett, and is the true legacy of the University.

“We own our past, we own this place and we own our responsibility to serve students in positive, life-changing ways … in 2022, in 2185 and in every year to thereafter,” Franks said.

Division Chair and Professor of Mathematics Dr. Gary Tucker ’85 led the Alma Mater at the celebration’s close, and Rev. Dr. Timothy E. Fulop delivered the benediction.

Click here to watch the Founders’ Day Celebration.