At the age of 12, Stephanie Hales learned the power of words.
“For my friend’s birthday, I wrote her a poem, just for fun,” Hales says. “We were only in sixth grade. It was silly rhyming couplets about friendship. And I gave it to her right before the first-period bell.
“What is remarkable about Stephanie is how closely her very considerable intellect is sutured to her very, very good character,” says Joseph Loewenstein, Ph.D., professor of English and Hales’ adviser.
“After the bell rang, I saw her running toward me holding the poem and crying. She gave me a huge hug and said it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever read and thanked me. I had no idea where that burst of emotion came from.”
A few months later, the friend told Hales that she had been really suicidal and had made up her mind that she was going to kill herself. But when she got Hales’ poem, she realized there were people in the world who cared about her and she didn’t want to die anymore.
“Once you have an experience like that, you start to see just how prevalent mental illness and suicide really are in our society,” Hales says. “You begin to realize that mental illness is everywhere and wonder why no one is doing anything about it.
“Then you realize some people are doing things about it, but it never seems to be enough.”
Hales, who will graduate summa cum laude today with an English major and Spanish minor, both in Arts & Sciences, combines a strong intellect and love of words with a deep, wide vein of kindness and compassion
She realized that words and writing were important in a very literal way, and that many people suffering from deep despair can sometimes be saved by a little kindness. Hales practices that kindness like other people breathe.
“What is remarkable about Stephanie is how closely her very considerable intellect is sutured to her very, very good character,” says Joseph Loewenstein, Ph.D., professor of English and Hales’ adviser. “Stephanie is always smiling; she’s cheerful and buoyant, yet deep and sturdy. Her work goes deep; her writing is graceful and nuanced.”
Hales grew up outside of Indianapolis and knew she wanted to stay in the Midwest for college, but she had never heard of Washington University. In high school, she started getting “tons of material” from WUSTL and liked everything she read about it.
When she visited campus, she turned to her mom and said, “This is the place for me.”
“People here were friendly, and they were genuinely interested in me,” Hales remembers. “They didn’t just stand around and tell me about how great Washington University was; they asked me about myself and tried to find things about Washington University that would appeal to me.”
|College of Arts & Sciences|
And now she has no regrets.
“It has probably been the best four years of my life,” Hales says of her undergraduate career. “I loved being an English major. I love writing.”
Hales won the end-of-the-year English department writing competition (submissions are blind) three years in a row. She also was a finalist for Truman and Rhodes scholarships.
At the end of her junior year, Hales was one of five students to receive an Undergraduate Honors Fellowship to support her senior thesis research. As a senior, she was one of nine recipients of the Ethan A.H. Shepley Award, which recognizes student leadership, scholarship and service to the campus community.
But while Hales loves and is good at writing, she also likes to help others, as the Shepley award acknowledges. Much of her spare time as an undergraduate was spent trying to help people who were struggling with everything from freshman adjustment issues to grief and loss, eating disorders and depression.
Hales was a member of Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center for four years, starting out as a trainer and eventually becoming co-director.
For more than two years, Hales volunteered at the Life Crisis suicide hotline based in Clayton, which takes calls from all over the St. Louis area and nationally.
Her work with these groups has made her realize how many social-service groups are hampered by lack of resources and bad policies. Consequently, Hales has decided to attend the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in the fall.
“I want to effect change,” she says. “I want to be part of that effort to fix things. I think a law degree will help me do that.”