A nursing alumna who volunteered to go to New York in the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis and an alumnus who keeps his exceptional students engaged at a Charlotte high school were honored on Wednesday, March 31, as the first official guests of the new UNC Charlotte Marriott Hotel & Conference Center.
Brittany Akinsola ’11 and Robert Wright ’18, ’20 were chosen for their commitment to their communities and dedication to those they serve, in general and especially in light of the challenges faced by health care and education professionals during the previous year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You both represent the nearly 150,000 Niners across the globe who are making a difference in their communities … and especially the 75,000 that call the Charlotte region home,” said Chancellor Sharon L. Gaber at the opening ceremony for the new hotel and conference center. “Thank you for representing the incredible spirit of Niner Nation in a year that has tested all of us. We are so proud to call both of you UNC Charlotte alumni.”
Akinsola left her home in Charlotte about a year ago to work in the emergency intensive care unit at Samaritan's Purse relief hospital in New York City’s Central Park. She spent three weeks caring for some of the sickest COVID-19 patients in one of the nation’s hardest-hit areas in the early days of the pandemic. She invited her husband, J.T., to the hotel opening to share the experience.
“He’s my biggest cheerleader,” she said.
Wright graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in special education from the Cato College of Education. A teacher in the exceptional students program at Olympic High School, he created several new methods for encouraging his students to stay on track. For example, he scheduled weekly virtual meetings to discuss each student’s academic progress, communications needs, and social and emotional support. Sharing the day with Wright was his brother, Hunter Smith, a UNC Charlotte freshman and kinesiology major.
“The event fell on Hunter’s birthday so he was the natural choice to be part of the celebration,” Wright said.
Akinsola and Wright took time to talk about the honor and their experience:
What was your reaction to being invited to be the first guest at the new UNC Charlotte Marriott Hotel and Conference Center?
Brittany: “I am honored that I would be considered for something like this. Honestly, I just do what I think is the right thing to do. But I have to say I was very honored.”
Robert: “It’s a very special day and very exciting to be recognized. To be invited by Chancellor Gaber was special. I was dancing around my living room.”
Given all that requires your attention during this challenging time, was it difficult to say "yes"?
Brittany: “I told my husband, take a look at this. I think this is the real thing. He joined in on the excitement, and it was a lot of fun. Of course, I’d do this for my alma mater.”
Robert: “It was an easy ‘yes.’ I am currently on the Young Alumni Chapter Board, and I work as student engagement chair. We all want a sense of normalcy back. This is a great opportunity.”
Did you plan anything special on campus or close by during your stay?
Brittany: “I was talking to a friend who said how much the campus has grown. I visited a few years ago with my sister and I said: ‘I think I’m lost.’ I did a little bit of relaxing but we also walked around to check out the campus.”
Robert: “I have my own photography business, so I brought some cameras to document the day. I wanted to explore the campus with Hunter. We also explored the hotel.”
What value do you think the new hotel/conference center offers your alma mater?
Brittany: “I think it’s a great idea and makes a lot of sense. It is a place to host visitors who come to the University for different events.”
Robert: “We have people coming in and out all the time, with the campus being the last stop on the light rail and so many guest speakers coming in. This complex is not only a hotel, but it’s a community center that can be utilized. It provides so many more opportunities, and it’s convenient. It’s a smart move for sure.”