CHESTER — Five- to six-hundred lawn signs and a United States Air Force veteran asked Widener University students to “Live Your Courage” Thursday. Student organizers and volunteers for the university’s third annual Courage Day blanketed the campus with signs, asked students fill out prompts on personal courage, and welcomed former United States Air Force Maj. Heather “Lucky” Penney, the university’s Oskin Leadership Institute Beideman Visiting Scholar, for an address.
Penney was one of two fight pilots deployed during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to find and take down United Flight 93. Without time to arm their jets, it amounted to a suicide mission by having to ram the plane. Her address and the Courage Day materials around campus prompted students and faculty to find courage in their daily lives and form a habit of making courageous decisions.
“There’s a lot that we do every day that you don’t realize is courage but it is,” said Michaela Mertz, principal student organizer for the event. “Today is all about motivating people to choose that harder right, and to make a difference in their own lives, as small as may be.”
“The passengers on Flight 93 were the true heroes,” Penney said after recounting her mission with Col. Marc “Sass” Sasseville to take down the plane. The mission came after a recent return from Exercise Red Flag training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., with expectations for a day of catching up on paperwork and returning to normal routine. “In the time since … I’ve come to realize that heroism isn’t something unique or possessed only by a chosen few.”
Penney described heroism as being three primary qualities – bravery, service and belonging. “They’re not nouns to me – they’re verbs – which means we can choose to be brave, to serve, to belong,” she said, encouraging the audience to make the actions daily habits. “I believe heroism is like a muscle – we all have the potential for the strength, but unless we practice it, cultivate it, exercise it, all it will ever be is potential.”
Speaking with the Times following her address, Penney referenced the Greatest Generation’s actions during World War II as exemplary of the courage of “everyday people.”
“They answered the call to save the free world – and they were plumbers, and school teachers, and local businessmen,” she said.
“On in those moments on (Sept. 11) as we were waiting for authorization to launch, I thought about George Welch,” one of two pilots to get airborne during the attack on Pearl Harbor. “I thought ‘this is my Pearl Harbor moment,’ I thought ‘if they could do it, I could do it,’” she said.
The event showcasing everyday courage was the culmination of planning since the start of the fall semester by its main sponsors, the Apogee Scholars of Widener’s Oskin Leadership Institute. The group is made up of recipients of the institute’s High School Leadership Award presented to students around the Delaware Valley who then elect to attend Widener.
Mertz said she and fellow organizers implemented several changes to this year’s event based on student feedback during the planning process. Formerly held on a surprise date, the 2019 Courage Day was promoted in advance to the campus with a “Courage Rocks” kickoff three weeks ago. Students painted rocks and pictures with encouraging messages to give to others or leave throughout campus. A group of students signed a courage pledge, with those completing it honored by Penney following her address.
While the event is no longer a surprise, a portion of the event’s 50 student volunteers were still active at 5:30 a.m. blanketing the campus with signs asking “Do you have to the courage to…” followed by questions including “to forgive?,” “to get out of your comfort zone?” “The community behind me – I love it, it’s really great,” said Mertz of fellow organizers and volunteers. “I always (anticipate) the worst, but today has gone so well. I’m very proud of everyone.”
“It’s great to see how … how people are still inspired to show courage,” said Theresa Kash, a third-year organizer for the event and courage pledge honoree. “You would think (students) who have lived through multiple Courage Days would say ‘oh, it’s happening again I don’t feel like doing it.’ You still see people consistently wanting to show courage.”
Freshman volunteer Eliza Meals, joining Kash at a student prompt table, said it was inspiring to see the event be well-established on the campus in its third year. “People are looking forward to it,” she said.
“I remember last year as a freshman stepping out of my dorm and there were just signs everywhere,” said Leon Mopecha, a courage pledge honoree and organizer. “Seeing the enthusiasm (participating) students had… just put me on a course for a better week. I was looking forward to it this year and was determined to help out.”
Penney spoke highly of the Generation Z students now in universities and what she sees as their willingness to make a difference in the world. “I think the Oskin Leadership Institute and Courage Day are particularly relevant to these young people,” she said following her address. “In some ways I feel as I look at my generation, we have a lot to live up to in order to be able to provide the shoes for the Gen-Z’s and Millennials to fill.”