“A gentle leader”: Friends, faculty and colleagues remember student Paulette Wright

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Paulette Wright

There’s a short video of Paulette Wright, recorded by a friend during the Southern Regional Model United Nations in Atlanta, Georgia, back in November.

It’s footage of her sharing a compliment she got from a fellow delegate, and it’s only 12 seconds long but it offers a warm glimpse of a Radford senior headed toward a bright career as an educator.

“One of the delegates in my committee … came over and was like, ‘You did such a good job of speaking and convincing people!’” Wright recounts in the video, beaming. As she gestures, viewers might spot the long and elaborately adorned fingernails that were among her stylistic signatures. “I thought it was really nice.”

Paige Tan, a professor of political science and the Model United Nations faculty advisor, remembered Wright’s reaction: “She told me how much that meant to her, that her work was starting to be recognized by others.”

It’s a fleeting moment underscored by the tragedy that followed soon after, as Wright’s life and work were sadly and abruptly cut short.

On Dec. 21, 2022, while driving alone at lunchtime along a simple two-lane highway in North Carolina, Wright was struck head-on by an oncoming vehicle; she and the other driver died at the scene. That was eight days after Wright turned 23 and mere months before she was due to graduate.

At Spring Commencement on May 6, numerous friends and colleagues wore pins to commemorate Wright, and the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences (CHBS) awarded a posthumous degree in her name.

“She could find a connection with anyone and was a gentle leader, graciously supporting those around her,” CHBS Dean Matthew Smith said in his remarks at the event.

Those gestures formed a bittersweet coda to the life of a history and social science major who left her mark all around campus.

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Original members of the Schoolhouse Living-Learning Community (L to R): Paulette Wright, Kaela Henon, Nicole Nasco and Casi Kelly.

When she arrived at Radford in 2018, Wright was among the first to join the Schoolhouse Living-Learning Community, in which students pursuing their teaching licenses live in the same residence hall, sharing service projects and social activities.

“Having a community that had the same goal as me made it a lot more comforting,” said Casi Kelly, also an original Schoolhouse member and Wright’s roommate for three years. She graduated last year with a degree in education and now teaches third grade in Wytheville, Virginia.

“Paulette and I connected right away. If you saw one of us, you saw both of us,” Kelly said. “We got so much out of the experience. Having to speak in front of classes and peers, you really had to get professional with it.”

Associate Professor of Elementary Education Carol Bland, a founding member of the Schoolhouse’s faculty leadership team, called Wright “compassionate and nurturing.”

“She especially understood what new students needed in order to feel ‘at home’ at Radford. She didn’t wait for them to come to her,” Bland said.

“She often told me about the things she was planning to do for her future students, academically and personally, to make sure they were successful at school,” said Matt Grimes, director of assessment for the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), and head of the first Schoolhouse faculty leadership team.

“The way she spoke of her future in teaching was a testament to her core self – sharing her sweetness and kindness and sunny disposition with others,” he added.

A veteran of countless activities, she planned the university’s first Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service day camp, joined recruitment teams and participated in Highlander Days.

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At graduation, members of Paulette's cohort wore cords that displayed a photograph her. Buttons were also distributed to the History and Political Science departments in the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences and the School of Teacher Education and Leadership.

Wright also made strides as a Model United Nations delegate, recruited by Tan.

“When she joined the team, she never took on a formal leadership position because she was so committed to her teaching,” Tan remembered. “But we were so happy that she stayed with the club because, informally, she was the heart of our team.”

Three years ago, when Meghan Viet, director of the Teaching Resources Center (TRC), received the Radford University Foundation’s Award for Administrative and Professional Excellence, that honor entitled her to select a student to receive a $500 scholarship. She chose Wright, whom she knew through the Schoolhouse community.

“Paulette … is on her way to becoming a great educator,” Viet wrote in her nomination in 2020.

Before she began student teaching, Wright went to her cohort leader, Associate Professor of Social Studies and Special Education Darren Minarik, with an unconventional concern – her manicure.

“She was worried about her nails, like, ‘Do I need to tone them down a bit?’” Minarik recalled. “It turned out they were a huge hit with the school kids. So, you know, sometimes it’s those little things that make you unique, that are the kinds of things that teachers need.”

By senior year, Wright was completing her teacher licensing requirements, with a pending assignment to start work at Glenvar High School in Salem, Virginia, in the spring. In addition to classes, she was student-teaching three days a week to get field experience.

Another student in Wright’s cohort was Izzy Galante, who earlier this month earned her master’s degree in curriculum instruction. She and Wright worked together as observers at Christiansburg Middle School.

Galante listed eight things her friend liked: “History, Taylor Swift, having a good time, gossiping, her dog, her nails, her brother and teaching.”

“Last year had a lot of ups and downs for Paulette – the stress of student interning, going on her Model U.N. trip, getting tickets to Taylor Swift’s Eras tour,” Galante recalled, but said, “She was always a joy. Always frank and funny.”

One night, toward the end of the semester, they worked together at the TRC on their final social studies project. After pulling a long shift, both went home to start winter break. It was the last time Galante saw her friend.

“She is in our memory now, and the world is robbed of a sensational, compassionate teacher and human being,” she said. “We love and miss her profoundly.”

May 16, 2023
Neil Harvey