August 31, 2009
WOOSTER, Ohio - Lillie Trent turned 73 this year, but you would never know it by looking at her...or listening to her...or watching her teach. The energetic French instructor is back in the classroom this fall, doing what she does best - teaching young people.
Trent, a 1958 College of Wooster graduate, has returned to her alma mater 55 years after first setting foot on campus. The year was 1954, and Trent was one of only two black students in the freshman class. "I was shocked when I got here," she says. "I didn't know what to expect."
Fortunately, she was well prepared. Her hometown of Lambertville, N.J., was largely white, but she never thought much about it. "When I was young, we didn't think about race," she said. "The Civil Rights Movement had not yet begun."
An exceptional student, Trent was the valedictorian of her class at Lambertville High School, where her Latin and French teacher, Augusta Janney, a staunch Presbyterian, strongly suggested that she consider attending Wooster. The College was delighted by her interest and responded by offering her a full scholarship, which was a godsend for the eldest of six children with a widowed mother as head of the household.
While at Wooster, Trent majored in French and had the good fortune of being taught by such legendary educators as Francis Guille, Pauline Ihrig, J. Garber Drushal, and Frederick Moore. "We had excellent professors," she said. "As I walk through the corridors of the first and second floors in Kauke Hall, I see the names of many of my old professors inscribed on memorial plaques, and it's as if I never left. When a door opens, I almost expect to see one of them hurrying out on the way to class."
As a student, Trent was a member of several choral ensembles, including Concert Choir. She also waited tables in Holden Hall and even served as a monitor for chapel ("I never skipped," she says proudly).
After graduation, Trent embarked on a remarkable journey that began with a trip to the Sorbonne at the University of Paris on a French Government Fellowship. She then returned to her high school in Lambertville (which had become South Hunterdon Regional), and spent 19 years teaching there, during which she took her students to Europe 15 times.
Along the way, she earned a master's degree in French Literature at Middlebury College in Vermont. After that, she went back to Paris to work on her doctorate and continued to shuttle back and forth, working as a bi-language secretary and translator as well as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. Trent has one daughter, Evelyn, who served 10 years in the U.S. military and seven years as a federal police officer. Much to her mother's delight, she is still fluent in both French and Spanish.
Aside from a visit to Wooster for her 25th reunion in 1983, Trent made relatively few trips back to campus, but in 2007, she was one of 12 former students invited to address Wooster's Black Alumni Council to speak. It was then that she met incoming President Grant Cornwell. "I went over to him afterward, and we had a very good conversation," she said. "We talked at length about his commitment to diversity and global engagement. At one point, I said, 'you know, I should have thought about teaching at Wooster.' He responded by saying, 'send me a cover letter and resume stating why you wish to do so.' When I returned for my 50th reunion in 2008, I looked up Dr. Cornwell and told him that I was ready to teach at Wooster. He cleared the way for my interview process."
This semester, the spry Trent teaches two sections of French 101 four days a week in the same building where she became a scholar more than a half-century ago. Next semester, she will teach a course about Black Women in Europe, which will be offered by the Africana Studies Department.
Trent believes that her interaction with the students is part of the reason for her youthful appearance and boundless energy. "You remain young when you teach young people," she says. She also credits good genes, a sense of humor, and a genuine love for life and for others.
Despite being away for 51 years, Trent feels as though she never left. "There was no adjustment because Wooster has always felt like home to me," she says. "I never felt uncomfortable here. I was a black woman on a white campus, a Baptist at a Presbyterian School, but it never mattered. Every time I come back to Wooster, I get such a warm feeling. I got so much from my experience here, and I am really pleased to see what Wooster has become."
Now as she shares her knowledge and life experiences with a new generation of Wooster students, Trent is energized by the opportunity to give back to her alma mater and share the wisdom of her years. "My message to today's students, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, is be yourself, reach out to others, love one another, and be proud of who you are."
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