A beloved elementary-school teacher who passed away in 2014 at age 42, Christa Helms Austin ’94 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 recently underwent a renovation.
For more than a decade, the Writing Center has been an integral part of the 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. They leave with direction, brainstormed outlines or solid plans for taking a mediocre paper to the next level.
Kristin Wharton, the ARC’s executive director, says 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.
“The space has new carpeting, lighting, paint, all new furniture specifically designed for individual consultations and group work,” Wharton says. “We have added large-screen monitors for our group rooms and all the electronic equipment for the speech lab. 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, Writing Center Director Dustin 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.”
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,” says Austin’s sister, Monty Coleman ’87. “She would see their potential and work relentlessly to help them see it for themselves. She challenged her students and expected much from them. They, in turn, were hard workers in her classroom.”
A magna cum laude graduate who earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education, Austin loved the writing of Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White. A quote from White on the Writing Center wall – “With the right words, you can change the world” – 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.”