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Love of Learning Founder Will Be Honored for Service to God through Young People

Rev. Brenda Tapia founded Love of Learning and served as its director for nineteen years.
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or

Twenty years ago The Rev. Brenda H. Tapia received a charge from Davidson College to fashion a program that would help more minority students qualify for higher education. But what Tapia heard internally was a calling from God to help young people succeed by learning both “who they are, and whose they are.”

Tapia is retiring now from nineteen years as founder and the only director of Davidson's nationally recognized Love of Learning program, and was honored recently at a reception on campus.

Almost all of about 500 students who completed the Love of Learning program attended college. Many of them owe their success to Tapia's determination to do everything it took-encouraging, cajoling, haranguing, berating, and loving-to direct them to contribute positively to Love of Learning and the larger community. Part philosopher, part psychologist, part disciplinarian, and all caring, Tapia always put truth before tact, and God before everything.

Her goal in Love of Learning was to wean young people from the shallow, defeatist, materialistic aspects of the modern world, and teach them to love and appreciate themselves and others. She was guided by old-fashioned values she learned growing up in an extended family in a then-segregated Town of Davidson. She believes that young people today have too much free time and not enough adult supervision. She believes they should always speak and dress respectfully and follow the rules. And she believes all any young person really needs is love, structure, and acknowledgement.

Tapia's parents -- James and Dovie Howard -- insisted that she get a good education. James worked on the college maintenance staff, then was an assistant in the chemistry department from 1949-1968.

Tapia in the company of her Love of Learning students.

Brenda fulfilled her parents' dreams and earned a degree in psychology at Howard University. She worked in a variety of counseling positions for several years, but the more she talked to people, the more she came to believe that their psychological problems were really spiritual problems. That led her toward ministry. She attended Johnson C. Smith Seminary in Atlanta and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1988.

While finishing up her theological education, she returned to her hometown in 1985 after an eighteen-year absence, and began working as a supply preacher at a Mooresville church. She was hired part-time by Davidson College as a consultant for minority student affairs, and a few months later became full time assistant chaplain and minority student counselor. At about the same time, a college task force seeking ways to increase enrollment of minority students suggested that Davidson sponsor an education enrichment program for high school students.

Administrators turned to Tapia for guidance. She accepted the challenge, and a Love of Learning pilot class of rising high school juniors was formed in summer 1987. Two of those students, Rafael Candelario ' 94 and Nethea Rhinehardt ' 93, became the first Love of Learning alumni to attend Davidson College.

Tapia led the way in creating a program that emphasized a holistic approach toward strengthening body, mind, and spirit. She shunned the notion that any sort of quick-fix, short-term program would work. Instead, she fashioned Love of Learning to run for five years, from pre-ninth grade through high school graduation. The program enrolled about 120 African American students for most of its existence (white and Hispanic students were enrolled in the last few years.) Tapia liked to call her students “diamonds in the rough,” referring to their current condition and future promise. “I'm trying to help people recognize the potential of students,” she said. “Be nice to them now so that you can have a front-row seat at their inauguration, or when they pick up their Academy Award!”

Love of Learning served as a year-round supplement to students' regular school curriculum. There were gatherings every month throughout the school year, and a month-long summer residential session on Davidson's campus. During the residencies, Love of Learning students were under the care and mentorship of college students, mostly from Davidson.

There was no cost to parents of Love of Learning students. Area school systems from which students were drawn, and some corporate and individual donors supported the program, but Davidson College provided the bulk of its financial support.

The summer sessions, which students attended for three of their five Love of Learning years, occupied students from sunup to lights-out in a structured curriculum of academic tutoring, leadership training, spiritual development, physical education, and recreational activities. A staff of thirty teachers from local schools and colleges taught core courses in math, English, and science, as well as electives ranging from public speaking to dance. About twenty college students served as counselos and mentors, living with students in the residence halls and providing instruction and guidance.

Tapia most appreciated the freedom during those summer sessions to lead students to confront their spiritual beliefs and needs. “My marching order from God was to create a nation within a nation,” she said. “At the beginning of the summer session each year students symbolically took their masks off and put them in a box. We told them we were going to create a world different from what they had experienced. But ours was the real world. Out there wasn't real. We did what God encouraged prophets and servants to do, to hold each other and give a lot of love. We tried to help students understand that's how you change the world.”

As a trained counselor, Tapia was called on to lead group sessions, such as this faculty/staff retreat.

She continued, “Love of Learning was a church in disguise-the real church, what churches are supposed to be. On the side we taught them a little reading, writing, and arithmetic. But anyone can pick that up. The real emphasis was on freeing the light within.”

She also believed that an all-black educational program on the Davidson campus was tremendously affirming and motivational for young people. “During the summer they got to experience something I got for free from first through tenth grade, when I was in segregated schools,” she said. “I've recreated the community I knew then, where black people had to care for each other because the larger world didn't. There aren't many students of color in top-level public school classes now, and those few who are need support of others like them. So being able to attend all-black classes and live in all-black residence halls during the summer… they ate that up!”

Tapia spent a lot of time helping Love of Learning students cope with societal racism. She felt the sting of white racism herself during her last two years of high school in a newly integrated school, and then discovered black racism at Howard because of her very dark complexion. She often felt conflicted about working at Davidson, too, because she believed the college family showed too little concern for decisively addressing racial issues. Human value based on skin color was hypocritical at an institution that proclaimed Christian affiliation, she said. “Heaven isn't segregated,” she said. “From a spiritual point of view we're all equal.”

“Brenda has made an immeasurable contribution to Davidson College beyond her direction of Love of Learning,” affirmed Clark Ross, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. “She has always been a voice for equality and justice on campus, and we'll also miss that aspect of her daily presence.”

Love of Learning celebrated its successes each year in a formal, Afro-centric graduation ceremony. The vast majority of graduates have achieved their college dreams, and more beyond that. She kept a photo on her desk of a graduate working at the White House, pictured shaking hands with President Bush. A current student and high school senior, Lewis Young, is being recognized as “Young Man of the Year” by the Charlotte Observer Pride Magazine.

But the numbers of graduates in each class were always smaller than the number of students who began the program. Tapia grieved those who dropped out, or the few who were asked to leave, including a former student who is serving time in federal prison for drug offenses and bank robbery. The pressure of directing a program on a limited budget with limited staff, and doing so with such heartfelt emotion, was often stressful and physically draining.

Evolving needs and attitudes of older students led Tapia and the college to a decision two years ago to phase out Love of Learning in favor of supporting two new local summer Freedom Schools. The two classes of students still enrolled in Love of Learning are being directed by Yvette Clifton, a former chemistry instructor at Davidson. Those students have the option to attend at no cost the college's other summer educational enrichment program, July Experience.

Tapia's retirement from Love of Learning will provide more time to care for her ageing parents and an invalid sister. She also wants to re-visit the peaceful expanses of the desert Southwest, write up the history of Love of Learning, lead corporate self-awareness workshops, and become more involved in the community. “Davidson College and Love of Learning have provided me an invaluable education I never could have afforded on my own,” she said. “I was forced sometimes to try totally new things, and my desire not to let the college down, and not to let my race down, has enabled me to develop skills and abilities I never could have imagined.”

Tapia at her Davidson home with mother and father, Dovie and James Howard.

Her dedication to young people has not gone unrecognized. Proud parents of Love of Learning students have joined together and given her a vacation in Jamaica. She was tapped by Charlotte's Afro-American Cultural Center as one of thirty “Women of a New Tribe II,” received an Education Award from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, and was highlighted as a “Person of the Year” by The Charlotte Observer. The college is also creating a Tapia/Howard Library Book Fund in honor of Tapia's father on the occasion of her retirement. Contributions should be made to “Davidson College Library,” and mailed to PO Box 7200, Davidson, NC 28035.