In 1957, Levern Allen needed nine credit hours to complete her certification to work as a speech pathologist in North Carolina public schools. She wrote to the state's Board of Education to find out which universities offered the courses she needed and learned that Western Carolina University (WCU) was offering all the classes in one summer. Levern enrolled and became the first-ever black female student at WCU.
"It is hard to remember how you felt when you were 23," Levern says. "Because of all of the things that were happening throughout the U.S. at that time, I am sure I was apprehensive and fearful."
Despite racial tensions that were increasing in America at that time, Levern says she did not experience any problems during her summer at WCU.
In recognition of Levern's trail-blazing during a time of turmoil in America's history, the university recently named a new residence hall in her honor.
"It was a very big surprise," Levern says.
In September, Levern, who lives at Riderwood in Silver Spring, traveled to WCU for a dedication ceremony at the new dormitory, named Levern Hamlin Allen Residence Hall. Before the ceremony, she met with current students and alumni and answered questions about her experience at the school.
Then, Levern, along with her family and friends, WCU students and alumni, and university executives and trustees, all gathered outside the new building for the official dedication. Levern spoke to the crowd about her feelings about receiving such a great honor.
"It's not every day that someone gets a dormitory on a college campus named for them just because she needed nine hours," Levern said in her speech.
During her time at WCU, Levern kept a scrapbook to document her experiences and what was happening in the area at that time. Many years later, she gave the scrapbook, now a historical relic of an important time in U.S. history, to the university's library. At the dorm dedication ceremony, the school presented her with replicas of that scrapbook to pass down to her children and grandchildren.
"At the dedication, they had copies of the scrapbook made for everyone," Levern says. "My kids and nieces and nephews who were there didn't know anything about the scrapbook before that."
Levern says she never could have imagined having a building named in her honor, and the day at WCU left a big impression on her as well as her family.
"My grandson, who is eight years old has said, 'I am going to grandma's college,'" Levern says. "He was there for the dedication and enjoyed it so much."
After completing her courses at WCU in 1957, Levern went on to work as a speech pathologist in the Charlotte school system for two years. When she got married, she and her husband relocated to Washington D.C., where they raised their family. Levern got additional professional training at the University of Maryland and The George Washington University and later focused on speech pathology for children with disabilities.
After retiring, Levern wanted to focus her energy on what she truly enjoys as well as pursue new interests.
In 2002, she moved to Riderwood and lives in a Georgetown-style apartment home, which has one bedroom and a den, where she works on quilting projects. Now that she doesn't have to worry about things like mowing the lawn or having appliances repaired, Levern spends her days doing the things that bring her joy.
She is a member of the African American history club and does yoga and tai chi classes on campus. She is also active in the resident-run quilting club. The quilters sometimes work on special projects together, like making quilts for Habitat for Humanity to be donated to people in need. When they're not collaborating on a special project, the women bring their own quilting materials to a common area, where they can chat and swap tips while they work.
"I am still very, very active," Levern says of her life at Riderwood.
Levern is also the cochair of the community living committee, a group of 16 residents and staff members who work to promote harmonious living at Riderwood. The committee models its work after a civility program in Howard County. They have several interesting initiatives designed to promote goodwill on campus. For example, they have displayed sayings about civility around campus. They have also put up life-size cutouts of individuals who they believe embody the notion of civility, including Associate Executive Director Alphonso Westley.
"We just move them around campus with different messages," Levern says of the cutouts. "They are so lifelike that people have been known to speak to them."
In the fall, the community living committee hosted a showing of the movie Pay It Forward, which explores the idea of lending a hand to others when you receive a favor or a lucky break. To celebrate the Chinese New Year, the group will pass out fortune cookies that have messages inside with the group's core principles.
"I think we have made an inroad and I feel like we're having an impact," Levern says. "We've done lots of interesting things."
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