Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Writing Center renovations honor beloved teacher, '94 grad

By Luanne Williams

A beloved elementary school teacher who passed away in 2014 at age 42, Wingate alum Christa Helms Austin is most often remembered for her ability to bring out the best in students and to encourage others. It’s those characteristics, along with her love of good writing, that make the University’s new Christa Helms Austin Writing Center a vibrant and fitting tribute. As a result of a gift to the University from Austin’s family and friends, the Center has recently undergone a renovation.

For more than a decade, the Writing Center has been an integral part of Wingate University’s Academic Resource Center, providing expert, individualized advice and helping students develop writing skills that are transferable. Students walk into the center inside the Ethel K. Smith Library with challenging assignments, sketchy rough drafts or deeply researched papers that they can’t quite polish off and leave with direction, brainstormed outlines or solid plans for taking a mediocre paper to the next level.

Clay Austin and Hanna Austin Baucom at the Christa Helms Austin Writing Center at Wingate University.

Christa Helms Austin's son and daughter, Clay Austin and Hanna Austin Baucom, recently visited the center named in her memory.

Longtime director of the center, Kevin Winchester, a Wingate alum now on the faculty at Union Academy, ensured that students got the help they needed even as growth and changing needs kept the center on the move on the library’s second floor.

“We shifted Writing Center services into a few different spaces in the ARC pre-pandemic,” explains Kristin Wharton, the ARC’s executive director. “During the pandemic, the entire staff worked together to take our services online. We were still meeting weekly, dreaming of being able to serve students back in-person again and thinking about what we could do to further improve our work. Our tutors and our students prefer face-to-face tutoring. We knew that we wanted the physical presence to be a focal point.”

Wharton said that once the Academic Advising, Career Services, and Orientation offices moved from EKS to the University’s new Crowder Welcome Center, the perfect space for the Writing Center opened up.

“It was centrally located, next to the elevator and Haskins Room, and visible for students using the library,” she says.

Wharton; Winchester; Amy Jackson, assistant vice president for foundation relations and development; and new Writing Center Director Dustin Morris helped design the physical footprint of the newly renovated space. With input from Austin’s family, Wingate’s creative director, David Storey, provided inspiring graphic-design work. The Christa Helms Austin Writing Center, already in use, will host an open house event this spring.

“The space has new carpeting, lighting, paint, all new furniture specifically designed for individual consultations and group work. We have added large-screen monitors for our group rooms and all the electronic equipment for the speech lab,” Wharton says. “There is space for the student staff and comfortable seating for individuals seeking assistance. We also moved the welcome desk in the ARC to better serve both areas well. It has been a labor of love for many Wingate staff members.”

Like Austin, who brought out the best in her students, Morris believes anyone can become a good writer.

“Although some folks do have an easier time of writing than others, we believe that writing skills are not something handed down from a divine presence and bestowed only upon certain people,” he says. “Writing is something that anyone can learn to do better with practice and patience.”

He says the best writing is not a solitary act but a social experience that happens with various points of input, including writing experiences, readings, personal experiences, discussions and relationships with others. His hope is that students who use the Writing Center see writing as a mechanism for thinking and, therefore, learning.

“We believe we can write ourselves into certain ideas and that the process of writing can help reveal new ways of thinking,” Morris says. “Because writing is collaborative, talking about writing is important to the process. Some writers possess an instinct to have these conversations with themselves, but most writers need someone to bounce ideas off of. Writing Center consultants act as that conversational partner.”

Monty Coleman and her parents stand outside the Christa Helms Austin Writing Center.

Monty Helms Coleman '87, center, and her parents, Parks and Pat Helms, recently visited the writing center named as a tribute to her sister.

Austin’s family says the center embodies her positive energy and her incredible servant’s heart, as she was always reaching out to others to offer words of encouragement.

“Chris always saw the needs of her students as a top priority. She would see their potential and work relentlessly to help them see it for themselves,” says Austin’s sister, Monty Coleman ’87. “She challenged her students and expected much from them. They, in turn, were hard workers in her classroom. She loved keeping up with former students throughout their educational journeys.”

A magna cum laude graduate who earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1994, Austin loved the writing of Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White. A quote from White, “With the right words, you can change the world,” on the Writing Center wall reminds students of the difference-making power of the pen. Other well-known quotes line the walls, prompting students to persist in their efforts and to proofread with care.

But just as Austin, a two-time teacher of the year, was always focused on her pupils (400 children over a 20-year career in Stanly and Union counties), the beauty of the new Writing Center is, first and foremost, displayed in how it will better serve users.

“The renovations improve the student experience in several ways,” Wharton says. “The space allows for more consultations to take place at the same time, serving multiple students. The separate rooms with monitors will allow students to work on group projects together, with the assistance of Dr. Morris or a writing consultant.”

Morris says the center’s influence will reach beyond the campus, creating more opportunities for the community of Wingate to practice writing and communicating. 

“This spring, we’ll open the Oral Communication Lab, where people can record speeches and podcasts or work on editing projects,” he says. “I am also attempting to start a Write on Site to support faculty research. This will be a time devoted to writing in the Center and to keeping each other accountable.”

The Christa Helms Austin Writing Center staff is available to help students from 2 p.m. until 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Online consultations are Sunday and Monday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Students can also make an appointment. Learn more about the Writing Center.

Feb. 3, 2022