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The PC(USA)’s Christmas Joy Offering helps mother-daughter duo find success at Stillman College

‘There’s no way you can fail’

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

The mother-daughter team of Carla Louca and Susannah LeMay found a caring community studying at Stillman College, a Presbyterian-related school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Just like those wise pilgrims from the East who followed the star to Bethlehem only to return home by another way, Carla Louca and Susannah LeMay took some unexpected detours to find purpose and meaning.

And, in the end, the mother-daughter duo saw the light of Christ reflected in each other.

At first, living thousands of miles apart, their respective roads surprisingly led them to study in the same place at the same time, Stillman College, a Presbyterian-related school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Although Louca, now 42, had originally begun her undergraduate education in 1998, because she was “way too interested in partying,” she let her grades fall by the wayside and left school after only a year. When her daughter Susannah was born, followed by twin sons not long afterward, Louca took a break to raise her family.

But after divorcing and working a series of mediocre jobs, she wasn’t making ends meet and knew she needed something more.

“I needed the intellectual challenge and the spiritual connection,” she said. “Something was just terribly missing.”

She found it all at Stillman.

“When I first contacted the admissions office, I was transparent and honest about my situation, which I explained in a personal statement,” she said. “They took a chance on me and am I ever glad that they did.”

Meanwhile, LeMay was living and studying in South Korea, where her military father was stationed at the time. Although she thought she would follow in his footsteps as a career diplomat, the Covid years precipitated an inner crisis as well as a financial one for the now 21-year-old, as she contemplated returning to the U.S. to continue her studies.

“When you spend a lot of time reflecting on yourself and what you want from life, I realized that diplomacy wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she said. “I knew I wanted to go into music, but I couldn’t get funding where I applied in Alabama. Because my mom was going to Stillman, she suggested I come there to study music journalism. Once I transferred and jumped into a lot of activities, I quickly learned that as soon as you get into the community, there’s really no way that you can fail. If you want to succeed, people will absolutely give you the tools and the knowledge that you need.”

Providing students like Louca and LeMay with the support they need to succeed is what the PC(USA)’s Christmas Joy Offering — a cherished Presbyterian tradition since the 1930s — is all about. The annual offering distributes gifts equally to Presbyterian-related schools and colleges equipping communities of color and to the Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions.

Stillman was founded in 1876 by a group of Presbyterians led by the Rev. Dr. Charles Allen Stillman, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Tuscaloosa. Initially established as a training school for African American ministers, today the college is “committed to fostering academic excellence, to providing opportunities for diverse populations, and to maintaining a strong tradition of preparing students for leadership and service by fostering experiential learning and community engagement designed to equip and empower Stillman’s students and its constituents.”

“Stillman College has long been the place where students who do not find easy access in other institutions can find an opportunity to work on making their dreams a reality,” said Dr. C. Mark McCormick, Stillman College’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “Carla and Susannah have unique stories. Even though they are mother and daughter, their paths to Stillman arrived from different directions and with different hopes. The fact that they have both flourished in their studies and they both confess that their relationship with one another has grown to new breadths and depths is in no smart part due to the nurturing learning community they found here.”

And not only have both students excelled at Stillman, but their dedication to the college has also resulted in a big win — and an equally big windfall — for the school.

The mother-daughter team of Carla Louca and Susannah LeMay were part of Stillman College’s national champion Honda Campus All-Star Challenge team. (Contributed photo)

In April of this year, Louca and LeMay were members of the Stillman College Honda Campus All-Star Challenge team that won the school — the competition’s smallest — its first-ever National Championship, which was accompanied by a $75,000 institutional grant from Honda.

But were mother and daughter competitive?

“Being on the team together did have its stressful moments sometimes, but there’s really no competition,” said LeMay, currently a senior at Stillman. “My mom is a lot smarter than me as a person, and she’s also 22 years older than me so she has a lot more life experience!”

Because Louca’s life experience also includes a religious upbringing, she longed to reclaim her identity as a person of faith.

“Even though I grew up in a Christian household, when church got left behind later in my life, I always felt that yearning for God and I didn’t know how to find that connection again,” said Louca, who graduated in May, recently joined Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa, and is now pursuing a graduate degree in religion at Harvard Divinity School.

“At Stillman, people were so unabashedly Christian and faithful and had so much pride in their faith,” she added. “It was absolutely beautiful to me. I have seen my faith grow more in the past 2½ years than it’s grown over the past two decades, and that’s from the tremendous influence of the people around me.”

As for LeMay, she admitted she’s “still learning how to walk” as far as spirituality is concerned.

“But Stillman has definitely taught me the power of prayer,” she said. “I’ve seen firsthand that when I pray for things, they happen. That’s been a super important lesson to me.”

In their years together at Stillman, both their faith — and their relationship — have only grown stronger.

“We’re not just mother and daughter, we actually are best friends,” said LeMay, who looks forward to launching a career in the music industry when she graduates in 2024.

Although the duo has once again gone their separate ways, Louca knows that their physical distance will be easier to navigate this time around because their bond has deepened.

“When I think about how I have grown more spiritually and what I have learned at Stillman, especially what Dr. King said about the light of Christ being in everyone,” said Louca, “to be able to see that light of Christ reflected in my own child is a really beautiful thing to experience as a mom.”

As both a parent and a Stillman graduate, Louca is proud that the college continues “to produce people who care and who are really in touch with humanity.” For her, that’s the most important thing the community can do to give back to the world and to say thank you to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the gifts that made her and her daughter’s education possible.

“The Christmas Joy Offering isn’t just a program,” Louca said. “It touches individuals’ lives, and I’m so grateful.”

Your gifts to the Christmas Joy Offering provide leadership development opportunities and help Presbyterian-related schools and colleges equipping communities of color provide quality education for our future leaders.

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