Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El

During her 35-year tenure at Millersville University, Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El was always a force to be reckoned with. She fought fiercely for her students and for causes she believed in. And, she fought fiercely for her life when her stage four metastatic breast cancer returned in 2014 after first being diagnosed in 2008. Smith-Wade-El passed away on Saturday, Dec. 29 just after the Christmas holiday.

On Sept. 16, 2018, all who loved and admired Rita were able to attend a celebratory fundraising event in Marauder Courts at the Student Memorial Center. The room was packed with current and former colleagues, students, family and close friends who shared stories and memories. It was also packed with elephants. The elephants were glass, wood, ceramic and many other materials. They were collected during Smith-Wade-El’s travels around the globe.

The more than 350 people who came out to celebrate Rita participated in a silent auction, which included many of her prized possessions including her personal collection of vintage and crystal glassware, a cultural collection of African and international art and of course, her extensive elephant collection.

The auction raised approximately $18,000 to support two scholarships, one created by Smith-Wade-El, The Eva Mae & James Edward Smith Scholarship in African American Studies, and the other by her colleagues in her honor, The Rita Smith-Wade-El Social Justice Leadership Award.

One of the speakers at the event was Dr. Daniel Wubah, president of Millersville. He said, “One of the most extraordinary aspects of that uplifting event was that Rita collected her lifetime of treasures—figurines, jewelry and artwork that spoke to her heart and were part of her life—and she auctioned them off to support the future success of students, many of whom she will never meet.  Parting with your treasures, talents and time is an extraordinary gesture.”

At the event, Smith-Wade-El acknowledged that it may be the last time many of these familiar faces see her. The courts reverberated with the sound of all attendees singing her, “Happy Birthday,” to mark her turning 70 a few weeks later on Oct. 1.

Smith-Wade-El left her post as a full-time professor of psychology and African-American studies at MU in 2018 not because she was ready to retire, but because she was dying, which was a fact she plainly told anyone who asked. She tackled the final stage of her life with the same educational spirit she always employed. Smith-Wade-El was committed to treating the dying process as a learning experience for herself and those around her. She was open about the process, granting several interviews with local media including Lancaster Newspapers and the Philadelphia Tribune.

In September 2018, Millersville’s Council of Trustees approved the naming of the Intercultural Center in honor of Smith-Wade-El to memorialize her work around diversity and inclusion at the University and greater Lancaster area. The center is now known as the Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El Intercultural Center.

That is just the tip of the iceberg of the incredible work she did both at the University and in the surrounding community.

Smith-Wade-El taught a variety of courses at MU including General Psychology, Psychology of Racism, Psychology of Religion, Psychology of African-Americans, Human Relations, the Black Women, History and Systems of Psychology, Learning and Motivation, Cognitive Psychology, and Human Growth
and Development.

She was a leader in the creation of the African-American studies minor and was instrumental in creating the Latino studies minor. She also co-developed several team-taught integrated experiences with faculty members from across the University; and was co-director of the Ethnic Studies Learning Community Freshman experience. She led students to present their research in a variety of venues, including at the State System Frederick Douglass Institute Collaborative, and she was the impetus behind the Millersville University Frederick Douglass debate team, which competed at the PASSHE level and won the Douglass Debate Society championship in 2015 and 2016.

Smith-Wade-El received a number of impressive awards including the prestigious Essence of Humanity Award presented by the Crispus Attucks Community Center. She also received the National Black Catholic award. In March 2018, she was recognized at the 50th Black Student Association/Black Student Union Anniversary Celebration at MU. And, in May of that year, she gave the graduate commencement address.

“The legacy I want to leave behind is one of social justice, research and scholarships that make sure African-American students can attend college,” Smith-Wade-El said in fall 2018. “I want students to become exceptional scholars, which I think students can be and I want people to be committed to the community and activism.”

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