An awards ceremony on Jan. 22 that recognized University of Arkansas - Fort Smith students as “unsung heroes“ of the community followed a panel discussion by community leaders about the legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Nichelle Christian of Fort Smith, director of the testing center and chair of the American Democracy Project MLK Day observance, commented on the significance of an awards presentation for unsung heroes.
"The American Democracy Project’s annual observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in conjunction with the recognition of unsung heroes has become a solid tradition at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith,” Christian said. “These students are great examples of what it means to make a difference in the lives of others through service as we remember the life and legacy Dr. King."
Students named as “unsung heroes” were Darin Choate of Marble City, Dustin Hilliard and Maya’Neisha Johnson of Fort Smith, Jacob Malone of Rudy and Sharlot Wakefield of Cedarville.
Choate was nominated by Lois Yocum of Fort Smith, associate professor and director of the Middle Childhood Education program. Choate is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Middle Childhood Education with an emphasis in Math-Science.
“Darin Choate is highly articulate and represents UAFS in positive, constructive ways,” said Yocum. Citing Choate as an “outstanding student leader” in and out of the classroom and “for his highly positive contributions to classes and student activities on the UAFS campus and his involvement in a wide variety of community volunteer work,” Yocum said she was proud to nominate him as an unsung hero.
Hilliard was nominated by Dave Robertson of Mulberry, director of the Family Enterprise Center. Hilliard is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in English with teacher licensure.
“Dustin has represented the College of Languages and Communication in the Student Government Association, volunteered for Rock the Vote, helped register new voters, served as editor if the UAFS Applause magazine and is a published writer,” said Robertson. “He’s honorably served his country in the Marines and will be a leader and an alum for us to keep track of in the future.”
Johnson was nominated by Dr. Lynn Lisk of Fort Smith, associate professor and director of the Legal Assistance/Paralegal program. Johnson is a criminal justice major.
“I can’t think of a more deserving student to receive the Unsung Hero Award,” said Lisk. “She’s president of the Black Students Association, vice president of the University Ambassadors and secretary for Juneteenth.” Lisk pointed out that Johnson volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club of Fort Smith, serves in a pastoral role by preaching at various local churches and pays her way through school working at Walmart.
“She is truly a student leader who is living the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had,” said Lisk.
Malone was nominated by Patsy Cornelius of Fort Smith, assistant professor in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. Malone is majoring in nursing.
“Jacob Malone is an unsung hero because he pays it forward every chance he gets through volunteerism, pre-professional nursing activities in the UAFS Student Nurses Association, and for taking advantage of every opportunity to learn and apply his new-found knowledge to the betterment of society,” said Cornelius.
Cornelius cited the Maymester trips Malone made to Belize and Ecuador and the way he earned money to purchase and collect medical supplies for the trips. She also cited his volunteer work with the homeless at the Community Rescue Mission and with the aged through Project Compassion at the Alma Health and Rehabilitation Center.
Wakefield was nominated by Dr. Argie Nichols of Roland, director of the Bachelor of Science in Animation Technology program. Wakefield is pursuing a certificate of proficiency in the Office Assistant program.
“Sharlot Wakefield returned to college after 20 years of being a stay-at-home mom,” Nichols said. “She was starting over after her 27-year marriage ended.” Nichols said Wakefield did what she had to do. She registered to vote, promoted herself in the classroom and in her community, volunteered to feed the homeless, collected food items for the backpack program, became very active in her church and worked as a student ambassador to help other students become comfortable in their new college role.
“It is with great pride that I nominate Sharlot Wakefield for the Unsung Hero Award,” said Nichols. “She is truly living the American Dream.”
Martin Luther King Jr., a 1964 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, was a leader in the civil rights movement, an effort aimed at nonviolence and equality. MLK Day is a federal holiday, held the third Monday of January, and in many communities is the impetus for volunteer service to improve local communities.
Members of the panel discussion which preceded the awards presentation included UAFS Chancellor Dr. Paul B. Beran; Charlotte Tidwell, director of Antioch Consolidated Association for Youth and Family Inc. and vice president of the Lincoln Alumni Association; Jim Dunn, chief executive officer and president of the U.S. Marshals Museum; and Euba Harris-Winton, historian and community activist.
“It’s incumbent upon us as a people to see that the dream of Martin Luther King continues as a collective dream because we can’t go anywhere as a divided nation,” Harris-Winton said.
When the panel was asked if it is important to keep teaching the legacy of King, Beran was quick to reply.
“Certainly it’s important to keep teaching, but it’s not all about just about teaching. It’s about doing something.” Beran went on to say that the lesson and legacy of King’s life is not just about the issues of a single segment of society. “It’s about opportunity for all of us.”
Questions for the panelists were posed by UAFS students Adrian Hinkle and Jordan Jensen, both of Fort Smith.
Amy Jordan of Fort Smith, assistant professor of organizational leadership in the College of Applied Science and Technology at UAFS, is also campus coordinator of the American Democracy Project, which sponsored the panel discussion and awards ceremony. The American Democracy Project is a national initiative designed to foster responsible citizenship at all levels.
Jordan said the theme for this year’s MLK Day community activities was “Out of a Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.”
“Placing those stones in ways that create a better society is everybody’s work, even if the work is never acknowledged,” Jordan said.
“Building a better America is the work of millions of unsung heroes,” she added. “We wanted to recognize a few of these people in the UAFS student body with an awards presentation for their contribution to realizing the dream of Dr. King.”