Photo: QCity Metro

By Ashley Nicole Bellinger, as told to Glenn H. Burkins

I was elected Miss Johnson C. Smith University in the fall semester of my senior year. We had just gotten the news that we weren’t coming back to campus because of the Covid-19 pandemic. So I was a virtual Covid queen.

My mom graduated from Smith in the class of 1986, so when she talked to me growing up about her years at Smith, I knew I would be going there, too, some day, even though I was only in elementary school.

When time came to take my college tours, I wanted to tour Smith right away. I took my tour, and I haven’t left since.

My time on campus was absolutely perfect. I met some of my best friends there, and we are still very close. Even though Covid has us scattered out to different states, we still keep up with each other as much as possible. And even with that, I love the relationships.

I was an interdisciplinary studies major, with major concentrations in graphic arts and production and minor concentrations in business and entrepreneurship.

Ever since I stepped foot on that campus, I have felt like I was part of a family.

In the spring of my junior year, the pandemic arrived. We were all very panicked at first, because no one knew what Covid was back then. So when we all got told we had to go home, most of us were like, What’s a pandemic?

I never thought in a million years I would never come back to campus for my senior year. I understand why we didn’t come back, but it still hurt.

It was a big adjustment for a lot of us, including myself. We had to do everything virtually.

Before Covid, I had been able to walk into my teachers’ classrooms if I didn’t understand something. I went from being able to have study groups to just being alone in my bedroom at home in Miami, Zooming in with class and trying to figure it out.

A lot of us picked up jobs to supplement our household income, and that really put a damper on a lot of students’ academics.

In the middle of that situation, I was elected Miss Johnson C. Smith University.

It’s something that I always knew I wanted to do, but I did sit back for a minute and I thought, Well, do I want to be a Covid queen? I know we weren’t going back to campus, so I wouldn’t be able to be a queen in the full capacity that I would love to be.

It literally came down to a conversation one day between me and my mom. She said, Well, if you don’t do it, can you live with that regret? And I told her no.

And so I ran, and I was able to get elected. I began thinking of all the ways I could keep students engaged, even though we weren’t on campus — whether it was through virtual events or me publicizing different clubs that were still going on. I was going to make sure that all the information that the university had to offer for the students was getting to them.

I also was making sure that I supported the freshmen, because they had never even been on campus. I wanted them to know they had someone they could reach out to if they ever needed anything.

I wanted to be Miss JCSU because I really do love my institution. Before I was afforded this opportunity, I was a Golden Bull ambassador. I would spend my extra time Monday through Friday giving tours to potential students and teaching them about the history of Smith, the same way that someone taught me while I was on my tour. They made it very clear to me that I was standing on hallowed ground that was made by freed and former slaves who all wanted a better life for themselves.

Covid was a disappointment. I wasn’t able to have a normal coronation. My coronation was actually a month before I graduated.

I wasn’t able to be involved in community service projects. I wasn’t able to participate in the homecoming parade. I wasn’t able to have some of the events on campus that are normally geared towards the freshmen girls. I wasn’t able to go and have my walk-through for football games. And I wasn’t able to participate in the Miss CIAA Pageant.

I feel like I missed out on the lot, and I can’t get it back. I just tried to make the most of the senior year I did have with the things that they did give to us and afforded us virtually. And that was honestly the best that I can do in the situation I was in.

I always try to look at the glass as being half full, not half empty. I was able to graduate from Smith and walk across the stage with a guaranteed job offer.

I am on campus now as a graduate, helping students move in and helping with Welcome Week. I will continue my duties until a new queen is named in late September. And then I will hand her my mantle, and it’s her queendom from then.

To our readers: We’ve long known about Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on Black communities across America. At QCity Metro, our mission dictates that we document that reality. But even amidst a pandemic, we also find stories of hope, inspiration and perseverance. This series is dedicated to telling those stories.

Our “Portraits of Perseverance” series is funded by the Facebook Journalism Project and sponsored locally by OrthoCarolina. To share your Covid story, email with the word “Portraits” in the subject line.

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