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The Secret Lives of Writers
Writing is often done in isolation, but NDSU's Center for Writers opens doors and invites students to the table.
Story by Micaela Gerhardt | Photos by Ann Arbor Miller and Micaela Gerhardt
Photo Illustration by Leah Ecklund | June 16, 2022
Every Monday morning, Chandice Johnson ’84 lifted the curved spine of his roll top desk and sat down to write in the master bedroom he and his wife, Thema, chose to convert into a home library. A big space for their books was more important to them than a big space to sleep. They filled even the walk-in closet to the brim.
For most of his life, Chandice was known as a softspoken Baptist pastor — but at the age of 50, he enrolled in the graduate English program at NDSU. While he studied and wrote, Thema read or listened to the classical music station. They often drank cups of coffee or tea. On occasion, they ate buttered slices of Chandice’s homemade bread.
In college, at Oklahoma Baptist University, when Chandice and Thema were dating, he’d pick her up in the evenings and take her to the library to read and study until curfew. They met at a mixer for upperclassmen students, and the first thing he ever said to her was, “Isn’t this a weird way to meet people?”
They got engaged on Valentine’s Day and married on a Wednesday night in June.
“We liked the same things. Wouldn’t you say we pretty much liked the same things?” Thema asked her son, Steve ’86. She is a small woman, in her 80s now. A hint of southern drawl still lingers in her voice.
“Yeah,” Steve said thoughtfully, “You always read the same books.”
“One of us would read it, and then the other one. It was hard, sometimes, not to make any comments until the other person had finished,” Thema said with the lilt of a smile.
At NDSU, Chandice found his purpose in life. As a graduate teaching assistant, he taught introductory and junior-level writing courses while earning his own degree. After he delivered his first classroom lecture, he told Thema, “It feels like home.”
Upon graduating, Chandice earned a spot on the faculty in NDSU’s English department. The dean of the College asked him to seek out writing centers at different universities, and after a year spent researching other institutions’ best practices, Chandice secured a grant from the Bush Foundation. With seed funding, he established NDSU’s Center for Writers in the fall of 1994 and trained undergraduate students to be writing consultants.
“A writing center is a space in which students who are struggling with their writing, but also students who just want to develop their writing and communication skills,” Enrico Sassi, director of NDSU’s Center for Writers, said. “Here, they have somebody who is really focusing on their specific needs, without being evaluative, without grading them. There is nothing like that at a university, and it’s an important part of learning how to write and being creative and innovative.”
In October 2020, Chandice, who Enrico described as the father of the Center for Writers, the source of its existence, passed away. In the wake of Chandice’s death, Thema, Steve, Chandice’s two brothers, and two of his sisters-in-law came together to establish the Chandice Johnson Center for Writers – Student Consultant Endowment through estate and immediate gifts. The endowment is already being used to fund undergraduate writing consultants at the Center.
Isabella Anderson ’22, an English education major with a minor in history, is the inaugural Chandice Johnson Writing Fellow. She, too, grew up in a house saturated with storytelling, particularly in the form of documentary films, but she despised reading until, in the fifth grade, she picked up a book she couldn’t put down. It sparked a love of reading that spilled over into adulthood, so much so that when asked what she’s looking forward to most this summer she said the time to read leisurely.
Since its inception, NDSU’s Center for Writers has employed and served students across disciplines, from nursing to history, biology to business, engineering to literature, and more. Regardless of the area of study, one of the main skills Isabella helps instill in her fellow students is confidence.
“So many students come in and are like, ‘I’m such a bad writer,’ and I’m like, ‘Nobody’s a bad writer, it’s just some people have better writing skills. You can develop those,'” Isabella said. She speaks with an earnestness that suggests understanding. In fact, Isabella said she often felt like a bad writer before she came to NDSU and developed her own skills. “Practice makes improvement. It doesn’t make perfect, but you will slowly improve as you continue your writing practice.”
As the Chandice Johnson Writing Fellow, Isabella shares her passion for reading, writing, and teaching by engaging students in a dialogue about their assignments and asking questions that help guide them toward a more cohesive, clear, and organized paper. She has also led an initiative to collaborate with NDSU’s Office of Multicultural Programs by offering walk-in writing consultations in their office space.
Ultimately, Isabella’s goal is to help students make connections and learn skills they can apply even after they leave the Center, when they’re back in their dorm rooms or in the library writing on their own.
“Our consultants are trained to ask questions during sessions, instead of giving demands, so that writers maintain control of their documents,” Mary Pull, associate director of the Center for Writers, said. “We also provide listening ears and informal feedback to help students think about how readers might understand or misunderstand their work, as well as how writers can accomplish their purposes for writing. We want students to feel comfortable asking us the questions that they do not want to bring to a busy professor.”
Olivia Svanes ’23, a history major minoring in emergency management, has been visiting the Center for Writers since her freshman year. She says scheduling an appointment with a writing consultant days before her final paper is due helps hold her accountable so she isn’t rushing to finish the paper at the last minute.
“Through the Center for Writers, I definitely learned to trust the writing process and that your paper needs multiple drafts,” Olivia said. “I feel like I’ve definitely grown as a writer and gained more validation in that I can actually write a good paper.”
Olivia has taken every single history paper she’s written in college to the Center for Writers, and Isabella is one of her favorite consultants to work with due to her enthusiasm, encouragement, and grammar expertise.
“I feel like the more you go there the more you understand what will happen, and then you’re better prepared and you can bring in questions,” Olivia said. “I’ve always been very grateful that there’s never been any judgement; they understand this isn’t the final draft of your paper.”
Chandice created NDSU’s Center for Writers with the goal of putting students first. At his memorial service, held at NDSU’s McGovern Alumni Center in April 2022, people shared stories about his life, sense of humor, and commitment to NDSU.
Kent Schluchter ’96, one of Chandice’s former students and an ag econ major, described how he initially dreaded taking Chandice’s 200-level English course. Then, on the first day of class, Chandice promised he would focus more on helping students put their thoughts onto paper than on punctuation and grammar, which got Kent’s attention in a hurry, and he eventually became a lifelong writer.
Today, the Center for Writers continues to deliver on Chandice’s mission to provide student-centered writing instruction that helps meet each student’s unique needs. Writing consultants like Isabella help their fellow students achieve success through collaboration. They encourage students to think of writing not as a solitary act, but as a conversation.
“To see the smiles on students’ faces when they leave the Center and feel confident in their writing? I mean, Chandice and his family, that’s what they’ve imparted on the NDSU community,” Isabella said.
“They’ve left students feeling secure with their writing and feeling confident in themselves. What he did has impacted so many students.”
As Isabella described what it has meant to her to earn a funded fellowship position in Chandice’s name, her voice waivered.
“It’s made such a difference on what I’ve done in this past year. I’ve gotten to work with so many people, and it’s just been amazing.”
She reached into her backpack, a light blue canvas bag speckled with the kind of flowers you make wishes on as a kid, those fragile white puffs of dandelion seeds, and pulled a Kleenex out of the pocket.
“I’ve never gotten opportunities like this before — I didn’t think I was good enough. Getting a position like this has really enabled me to be a leader on campus, and I just love what I’ve been able to do with that. I’m finally feeling comfortable with myself and feeling happy with who I am. I’m feeling confident and strong.”
Philanthropic support, like the gift from Chandice’s family, allows the Center for Writers to expand their services and invite more students to the table. If you’d like to contribute to the Chandice Johnson Center for Writers – Student Consultant Endowment, please visit the NDSU Foundation website.