The Best Hugger in the World
It has been more than a decade since Toni Harris Thorpe joined the N.C. State family as program coordinator for the African American Cultural Center. While her job description does not include it, on a daily basis Thorpe, or “Mama Thorpe,” a nickname given to her by students, gleefully greets familiar and unfamiliar faces. She engulfs every student who walks through the door of the African American Cultural Center in a genuine and warm embrace.
Her mission is to ensure that every person feels at home and welcome in her presence. Because of her sincerity and compassion,Thorpe is one of the most respected figures within the N.C State’s African-American community.
Thorpe wasn’t the first “mama” at N.C. State. Dr. Iyailu Moses, her predecessor, was known as “Mama Ilu.” Before Thorpe knew it, students began calling her Mama Thorpe. “I am so honored to have that title,” Thorpe said.
Though the nickname originated in the African-American Cultural Center, Thorpe’s nickname has grown to extend beyond the walls of the Cultural Center. Not only do current students call her Mama Thorpe and occasionally Mother Thorpe, but also alumni, faculty, and staff.
Former Director of Multicultural Student Affairs Felicia
Broussard said, “I think it is pretty obvious that mama is not a typical title for any faculty member. As a grad student and employee, I never would’ve referred to anyone that way. But it is very natural for people to call Toni Thorpe that, because of her nurturing way. She plays a motherly role for students and coworkers. There are very few people that she passes each day and doesn’t hug. It’s symbolic of who she is. It doesn’t matter if you are a freshman, tenured faculty member, or grad student – everyone refers to her in that manner.” According to Broussard, the title is a compliment because it describes what Thorpe means to people.” “She’s a campus nurturer… and she’s earned that
[title] for who she is,” she said.
Thorpe has impacted the lives of many people at N.C. State through her mentoring. “I couldn’t be a Mama Thorpe without [the students],” she said. Thorpe feels that many people underestimate the power of positive energy. “Sometimes you just need a hug” she said, “and more than that, I have a responsibility to the best of my ability to help students see their leadership potential, the beauty in understanding culture and love for life, and an appreciation for what others have done.”
Sophomore Alexandria Pitts, like many other students, understands how vital and imperative Thorpe’s role is on campus. “Mama Thorpe is the type of person that you want to know as soon as you see her smile, or get a warm hug from her. It’s something about her spirit that is so nurturing and motherly. She has a connection with each person she meets, and it’s a connection you want to always have.”
Senior Tsekai English agrees. As an out-of-state student she instantly recognized the supportive and encouraging nature of Thorpe. She said, “Being around Mama Thorpe makes home seem not so far away…she reminds me of my own family.” Though Thorpe admits that everyone isn’t fond of the title and that her relationship with everyone is not on a Mama Thorpe basis, she still embraces the reputation in order to empower people to be the best version of themselves.
“When I think about N.C. State, I see this role as a mature, nurturing support system. I, by no means, have the expertise of a counselor. In the role of Mother Thorpe, I want students to know that they are not successful by themselves nor do they fail by themselves. That’s an important component of understanding how you belong to a community.”
Thorpe is progressively working to grow in her role as the community mother. She understands that the role requires selflessness with a balance. She said, “People may forget what you’re teaching but they’ll never forget how you treated them.”