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DeVetta Holman Nash (Photo by Jon Gardiner)


The counselor pulled a list of names from her leather-bound folder. Her eyes were dark and intense as she introduced these students she has counseled, sharing their stories the way a proud mother shows off photos of her children. Warming to her subject, she emphasized points with her hands, the golden bracelets on her arms jingling softly as she spoke.

“She’s an Asian-Italian student from Charlotte, a Covenant Scholar, and now we’re working on her going to medical school,” said DeVetta Holman Nash, moving down her roster. “She’s a sophomore. She’s determined she’s going to be the superintendent of a school system. He’s an athlete who deconstructs every narrative people have about athletes.”

Holman Nash is the assistant director of student wellness services and coordinator of student academic success, the counselor students come to (or are sent to) when they are at their lowest point. I don’t belong here. I don’t fit in. I can’t hack it, they tell her. Often they’re ready to leave college.

Holman Nash turns all that around – not with canned platitudes about trying harder but by delving deeply into the students’ psyches, helping them to see what’s behind their self-doubt and to realize their full potential.

“Students accepted in UNC have the intellectual capacity to matriculate; however, for many, the inability to negotiate the social, mental and emotional dimensions of wellness pose a challenge,” Holman Nash said.

“I meet students where they are individually,” she said. “Sometimes what they consider to be wrong isn’t wrong. Wrong is relative.”

For Merrick Osborne, being a young black male on a predominantly white campus compounded the stress of being a college student. He was frustrated by “subtle prejudice and racial impediments” that were holding him back. Then he met Holman Nash.

“She saw my potential before I did. She challenged me to set a standard for myself that others could not reach,” Osborne wrote in his letter nominating her for the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. “Whenever I walked out of her office, rejuvenated, I would nod to the receptionist and begin my day with a new vigor and a new perspective. The world became conquerable with [Holman Nash] behind me.”

Osborne went from frustration to leadership as president of the Carolina Union Activities Board, vice president of his fraternity chapter and co-chair of Diversity and Inclusiveness in a College Environment (DICE), an organization founded by Holman Nash.

In the past 30 years, how many other students have entered Holman Nash’s cozy office in the Taylor Building, the one with the red chairs, and emerged “on the other side,” as she calls it? Hard to say, but her office walls are covered with letters and cards, many of them hand-drawn, and photos of special achievements: law school and medical school graduations, white-coat and hooding ceremonies.

A card she just received the other day had most of a heart drawn on it, the sides of the heart lopped off by the edges of the page. The student had written below it, “This is your heart. It is too big for this paper.”

Other mothering

While she reserves a special place in her heart and her time for her 14-year-old son, Robert-Anthony Nash, otherwise she seems to draw no real distinction between her role (she doesn’t call it a “job”) and her life.

 “When you love what you do, when it’s a passion, I don’t see it as being intrusive,” she said. “The role I play in the lives of students here is what I hope someone will do for my son as he furthers his education. I owe each student 100 percent each time I interface with them, both in and out of the classroom.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that she is also involved involved in several extracurricular groups and activities.

Holman Nash is faculty adviser to the college chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also founded DICE, described above, and Sister Talk, “a group of women of color who convene because they want to be their authentic selves, without having to explain or apologize,” she said.

To her students, Holman Nash is more than a counselor, more than a mentor. She’s more like a mother.

“There’s a concept called ‘other mothering’ and there’s a concept called ‘belongingness,’ and those two concepts fit together like a beautiful tapestry,” Holman Nash said. “Students, especially students from marginalized and disenfranchised backgrounds, who feel a sense of belonging show a higher level of engagement and involvement in school activities.”

If she knows that a student has no family or that family can’t attend graduation because of distance or finances, Holman Nash comes to Commencement to be the student’s family – cheering, hugging and smiling in their place.

She refers to students as her children, calling each son or daughter. “They get the same support I got from my household,” she said.

Holman Nash grew up in the small tobacco town of Oxford, in Granville County. Her father, a decorated World War II veteran, was a nurse’s assistant and operator of a dry-cleaning business who earned the money to pay the bills. Her mother was a “domestic engineer” who made sure that the family sat down together for breakfast and supper and
that the children did their chores and their homework. Her paternal grandmother also lived with the family.

Her father withdrew from Shaw University to go to war, but there was “never any doubt” that she would graduate, Holman Nash said, even after her father suffered a heart aneurism and died suddenly when she was 15. But the college switched from private and historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., to public and predominantly white Carolina, which was closer to her mother and younger siblings.

In the small pond of Oxford, this cheerleader captain, homecoming queen and student government vice president was a very big fish. At Carolina, she would enter as a very small fish, albeit one with a scholarship.

Her mother had taken the precaution of getting her assigned to a residence hall on North Campus, so that she would be close to the classrooms. Most of her friends were living on South Campus. But Holman Nash appreciated what her mother had done. “Being on North Campus kept me focused,” she said. “The majority of my classes were 8 o’clock classes. And it really was in alignment with how I operated at home. There was structure.”

She started Carolina in 1975, intending to be a pharmacist. But doubt began to creep in and, just like the first-generation, economically challenged, diverse students she helps now, she started to wonder if she fit in at Carolina.

The person she talked to was one of the University’s few black administrators, Hayden Bently “Benny” Renwick, associate dean in the newly formed Office for Student Counseling. He stoked the fires and abilities she knew she had brought within her to Carolina. She went on to get her bachelor’s degree in recreation administration, a master’s degree in public health from the Gillings School of Global Public Health and a doctorate in leadership studies from NC A&T State University.

“I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to do,” she said, following up with one of the many quotes she like to use to make her points. This one is from Gandhi: ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’”

Holman Nash also sees her work with students as a way to pay homage to Dean Renwick for the role he played in her life, and she wants her students to do the same. “Whatever you believe I have done for you,” she said, “I have one expectation and that is that you will reach back and do the same for others.”

By Susan Hudson, University Gazette

Originally published by University Gazette: Feb. 23, 2016

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