Faculty adopt theme of ‘pilgrimage’ to encourage students

Dr. MaryJane Dunn-Whitener

By Ally Hughes

Henderson State University faculty members are always searching for methods to motivate and encourage their students. Several ideas have been discussed to help establish a cross-disciplinary education for students, including the implementation of a common theme for the 2021-22 school year.

Dr. MaryJane Dunn-Whitener, professor of Spanish, took the initiative to develop the theme of “Pilgrimage: A Transformational Journey.”

“A pilgrimage is a journey where a person goes in search of new or expanded meaning about themselves, others, nature, or a higher good, through the experience,” said Dunn. “It can lead to a personal transformation, after which the pilgrim returns to their daily life.”
Dunn believes that time spent at the university should allow students to look towards their future and focus on their goals. She encourages students to think of that time as a pilgrimage because it is an opportunity for personal growth and transformation.

“Pilgrimages are just as much about the journey as the goal,” she said. “For students, that goal is growth through knowledge and self towards graduation and beyond.

“Graduation is a goal, not an endpoint. Students will continue their learning and life journeys after commencement, which sets them on yet another pilgrimage journey.”

Pilgrimage is nothing new for Dunn-Whitener. It’s a topic she “specializes in.”

“I have published numerous articles and have co-authored six books about pilgrimage and translations of medieval books that are about the pilgrimage to Santiago,” she said. “I've walked several other pilgrimage routes alone or with students since 1979.”

Every few years, Dunn leads the “Camino de Santiago'' pilgrimage in Portugal and Spain. In May 2022, she plans to take a small group on this pilgrimage. They will fly to Portugal and walk to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. This walk lasts for 13 days with only one day of rest, for a total distance of around 160 miles.

Dr. Douglas Heffington, professor of geography at Henderson, has observed the theme by hosting a trip to New Mexico on a “Pilgrimage to the Past” during fall break. He has taken students to the American Southwest region in recent years to experience the cultural landscapes of the area.

“I try to make sure students experience the flavor of the region's Indigenous Peoples and Hispanics -- temporally and spatially,” Heffington said. “For this recent trip, Henderson students ‘pilgrimaged’ to select sites that served and are serving as pilgrimage destinations in the past and present-day for that area.”

Heffington’s group visited El Santuario de Chimayo, a small adobe church constructed in the 1800s known for its miraculous healing powers. He said that the students “witnessed the power of place and sense of place firsthand in Chimayo.”

“Our students are not there to pass judgment on other's beliefs, but are there to understand better the connections humans have to place and the power of that place - key concepts in geography,” Heffington said.

Continuing with the pilgrimage theme, Dr. Bill Higgins, professor of voice and chair of Henderson’s music department, planned two concerts for the Henderson Opera Workshop. Nine singers with piano accompaniment performed “Songs of Travel, Songs of Purpose'' earlier in October that included music from popular songs, musical theatre, and films.

“Many musical numbers were about travel and world destinations, and some were about purposeful and inspirational living,” Higgins said.

The Opera Workshop will perform songs from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ opera “The Pilgrim’s Progress” next semester. Higgins said this concert will feature mainly solo songs and one duet from Williams’ opera.

Ruth Eyres, professor of special education, has incorporated the theme into her “Psychology of the Exceptional Child” class by following the inspiring story of Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray, two friends who traveled to Camino de Santiago together.

According to Eyres, Skeesuck has a disability that prevents him from walking. However, he made the 500-mile pilgrimage in his wheelchair with the help of Gray and many others. Eyres will continue to discuss their story in her class by looking at the children’s book “The Push” written by Gray.

“Pilgrimage is an encouraging image that says there is no wrong path, that each choice we make moves us forward, and we can always make a new or different choice,” Dunn said. “We can take our own route, and we can travel at our own pace.

“Some people on pilgrimage carry a lot of stuff that weighs them down; as they walk, they learn to let this stuff go. The same is true for students -- they may be carrying a heavy emotional load. Hopefully, the idea of pilgrimage will encourage them to let some of that baggage go, to make their lives lighter and freer.”

Chimayo Entry Gate

Dr. Douglas Heffington led students on a pilgrimage to New Mexico.