Challenging Year Helps Widener Community Redefine Courage

Hilary Bentman, Assistant Director of Communications
Hand holding an air plant in a bulb, with rock inside that says 'courage'
Courage Week 2021 concluded with an event called Plant Your Courage.

The courage to be your authentic self. The courage to show up for others. The courage to keep going, even if, and especially when, things get tough. 

Courage takes many forms, from grand gestures to small, but still meaningful acts. This past year – and its many challenges – has helped redefine courage for members of the Widener community, who reflected on those transformations during Courage Week 2021.

Headshot of student Matthew Savela
Matt Savela '22

“For me, courage is standing out and doing something that feels uncomfortable or doing something that makes people feel uncomfortable,” said Matt Savela ’22, a Courage Week organizer. “Over the last year we’ve been through a lot – through COVID, the lockdown, social injustice of African Americans and Asian Americans. It’s very courageous to be vocal these days, to speak out.”
Organized by Widener’s Apogee Scholars, Courage Week began as Courage Day in 2016, but was expanded this year to provide greater opportunities, make it accessible to more participants, and inspire people to think about courage year-round. 

Under the theme “Share Your Courage,” the week featured conversations with students and alumni, a social media campaign to amplify courageous voices, and collaboration with campus departments on programming.

Members of the Widener community – Apogee Scholars included – have demonstrated their bravery in countless ways this year.

The Courage to Step out of One’s Comfort Zone

For senior and head event coordinator Eliza Meals, courage is about personally overcoming social anxieties to “put myself out there.”

Student Eliza Meals
Eliza Meals '21

She began stepping out of her comfort zone freshman year, and now helps plan events and speaks publicly, allowing her to “develop my own personal leadership,” which will serve her well as she pursues a career in project management.

Transitioning to college is always a challenge; doing so in a virtual environment is a whole new level. But first-year students Madeline Lolli and Lizzy Lynch found the courage to make the leap and actively get involved in campus life, forging connections with classmates.

Megan Sharp ’23 has focused her courage on continuing her activism. “I want to speak up for people who can’t speak up for themselves or don’t feel empowered to do so. I want to be that voice,” said the aspiring lawyer.

The Courage to be Flexible

Nursing graduate Isaiah Washington ’20, who participated in an alumni Courage Week panel, says this past year has instilled in him the courage to adapt. 

Washington had planned to be an operating room nurse, but COVID-19 left many ORs dormant as surgeries were cancelled. When he entered the workforce in 2020, he pivoted to serving as a medical surgical nurse. He even took on a leadership role in his hospital, drawing on the experiences from his many leadership positions at Widener. 

“I’ve had leadership opportunities to grow and to pick up different skills and to make this transition, and Widener definitely prepared me for that. This year I’ve learned to adapt and be flexible,” said Washington, who is now back in the OR. “Flexibility is key, but you need the courage to be flexible.”

Student Nicole Brown
Nicole Brown '22

Biology / pre-med major Nicole Brown ’22 has also developed the courage to respond to changing circumstances. She’s been a volunteer firefighter for the past six years. But this year, her self-defined act of bravery has been working in a retirement community, assisting with COVID-19 screening, contact tracing, vaccine distribution, and caring for people who test positive for the virus.

With conditions evolving so quickly at work, Brown needed the courage to make adjustments just as fast. It’s a skill she has cultivated through her Widener leadership training and one that will serve her well as she pursues a career as a physician.

“This year has helped me build the courage to be able to not have a planned procedure, to think outside the box,” said Brown. “I think courage is a continuum and perspective matters.”

The Courage to Face the Day

Perspective is something Jeremiah McFarland ’19, also a Courage Week alumni panelist, has grown to understand and appreciate. 

An acute care nurse, McFarland found himself on the front lines of COVID-19: “I was terrified. I was treating patients for a virus no one knew anything about,” said McFarland, who contracted the virus himself and was hospitalized. 

Alum Jeremiah McFarland, wearing nursing scrubs and kneeling while holding a Black Lives Matter sign
Jeremiah McFarland '19

Amidst all of this, McFarland, who is Black and gay, found himself deeply impacted by incidents of racial and social injustice in the country. 

And then, near the end of 2020, McFarland lost his beloved older brother. 

Grief stricken but defiant, McFarland refused to give up and, bolstered by his faith, found the courage to keep going and be grateful for each new day. And it’s made him a better nurse, as he can relate to patients and families in a new way.

“This was such a terrible year but now I can say how it taught me how valuable life is. Even through the darkest of times growth can still happen and I find myself growing every day,” said McFarland, who was recently accepted into Widener’s master of nursing education program.

Courage Week featured a keynote address by actor Daniel Franzese, known for his role as Damian in the 2004 film Mean Girls. The event included a comedy set, and Franzese sharing his courage as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and a leader for body positivity.

The week concluded with a hybrid event called Plant Your Courage, in which air plants were distributed to members of the Widener community. 

The idea, said Jeanine Snow-Gephart, director of student involvement, was that “you have to take care of the plant, and you have to take care of yourself. That’s courageous.”

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