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Faith Leads Jewish Woman To Career On Campus

Yolanda Hairston, Hillel Director at UNCG office, 2004.

Article about my work as the Program Director for North Carolina Hillel:

  • By Jennifer Atkins Brown Staff Writer, Greensboro News & Record, August 7, 2004

When Yolanda Hairston started the Hillel student group at Salem College, she never dreamed she would eventually work for the organization that was so dear to her heart.

Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, provides opportunities for Jewish students to explore and celebrate their Jewish identity. Its global network includes more than 500 regional centers, campus foundations and Hillel student organizations."I was only one of three Jews at Salem College, but we had Hillel," said Hairston, 30. She earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish and communication while at Salem.

Her experience with Hillel in college planted a seed of dedication to her Jewish faith that still flourishes.

"I grew up at Temple Emanuel in Winston and taught in the religious school there for six years, but I became more active in my faith in college," Hairston said.Hairston went on to have a successful job as a news producer for a local television station, but eventually decided she needed a career change and a master's degree. She went back to school Pfeiffer University and earned a master's degree in organizational management. Now she is working toward a doctorate in management at Madison University.

While searching for a job, she stumbled upon the Hillel Web site and noticed a job advertisement that intrigued her: program director for N.C. Hillel of the Triad. She applied for and got the job. Hairston is based at UNCG.

Her duties include directing religious, social and educational programming for Jewish students at the Triad colleges. Although she devotes most of her time to UNCG, Guilford College and Elon University, she also works with other colleges in the area. These schools have larger populations of Jewish students and more student involvement. It is estimated that there are about 500 Jewish students in Triad-area colleges and universities, with roughly 250 of those at UNCG.

Hairston assists students in things such as planning Shabbat services and dinners. Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath.

"We try to make the services a learning experience with a theme," she said.

For example, she helped UNCG students prepare an Ethiopian Jewish service with an Ethiopian kosher meal. Last year she helped UNCG students start doing Tzedakah, which she says essentially means charity. Jewish students came together to help with numerous community projects. She also led students in a public reading of the names of Holocaust victims. She helps them plan social events such as Jewish movie nights and assists those wanting to learn how to read Hebrew.

"Some students come in questioning who they are and what they are learning," Hairston said. "I work with students wanting to convert, and those wanting to know more about their own Jewish faith."

Aaron Stern, a senior at UNCG and incoming president of the student group, has been involved with Hillel for four years and appreciates all Hairston does for students.

"She has brought a lot of excitement to Hillel," Stern said. "People feed off her energy and kindness."

Hairston's job is a not a 9-to-5 position, but she does not mind that she has to be at one of the schools almost every day, all hours of the day and evening."

Sometimes it doesn't feel like work, and I get to celebrate Shabbat," Hairston said. "Students become an extension of my family. This job is an extension of my life."

A member of Beth David Synagogue, Hairston stays busy attending student events. She also enjoys movies and reading and is writing a travel book and a children's book. She has a 9-year-old poodle named Yoli.

As a new school year begins, Hairston is finishing fall calendars and helping student leaders get organized. A challenge she faces is reaching more students.

"I've seen more students get involved, and the core groups have grown, but I'm always trying to reach more students out there on the fringe who might make a best friend in Hillel," Hairston said.

Yolanda Hairston with students at UNCG Hillel.

Hairston (standing), with Hillel student leaders, at UNCG.

Top photo: Yolanda Hairston, at her main office at UNCG. Photo credit: Greensboro News & Record.

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