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Students step into a night of jazz during NOLA Nights, one of several events to celebrate diverse cultures at Liberty

With the smooth sounds of classical jazz setting the scene, the LaHaye Event Space was transformed into the French Quarters on Friday night, where Liberty University students stepped out into NOLA Nights, a celebration of the New Orleans culture and the history of jazz music, hosted by LU ONE.

LaHaye Event Space was transformed into the French Quarters for NOLA Nights on Feb. 23, 2024. (Photo by Aziz Ibrahim)

The evening was a celebration of everything NOLA, with the RDU Jazz band from North Carolina beginning the night with a brief history of jazz, before shifting through different eras of the genre with their own music on stage.

Students tasted the flavors of New Orleans — cajun, creole, and a little bit of sweet — with options like gumbo and beignets on the menu. The evening was an opportunity for students to realize, or rekindle, their appreciation of jazz.

“I grew up with a father who loved jazz and raised me to have that same love,” freshman David Hunter said, noting his favorite jazz artist is famed trumpeter Miles Davis. “I didn’t want to miss it because I love listening to music, love learning about different cultures, things that I usually don’t get to do.”

NOLA Nights was just one of many events that LU ONE’s Office of Equity & Inclusion has held this year, including a Gran Fiesta Latina during Hispanic Heritage Month in September and a Culture in the Kitchen event in October. On Feb. 1, the department hosted its monthly open house to celebrate the beginning of Black History Month. In March, the office will celebrate Women’s History Month with an open house on March 1 from 1 to 4 p.m., and a Women’s Leadership Conference from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on March 19 in the LaHaye Event Space. To celebrate Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month in April, LU is kicking the celebrations off with a K-Pop special event from 9 to 11 p.m. on April 5 and an open house for AAPI Heritage Month on April 22 from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Equity & Inclusion Student Lounge, Montview Student Union 2760.

The office settled on the NOLA Nights theme this year after hosting a similar Soul Train event during Black History Month in February 2023, where they immersed students in the history of soul music and the Motown style that became so popular in the 1960s.

Tunya Pannell, LU ONE’s director of student engagement, said the night was more than just an opportunity to get students together for good music; it gave them a chance to experience the different cultures and backgrounds.

Students enjoy gumbo and beignets during NOLA Nights in the LaHaye Event Space on Feb. 23, 2024.

“We knew when we chose NOLA Nights that we wanted to bring that feeling that you stepped into New Orleans with the music and the food but also bring students the history of the jazz genre and why it was so important.”

LU ONE graduate assistant Abi Mendoza said the motivation behind planning these events is to serve the student body. “If you look at all of our staff down to our student workers, we all share that same service mind and heart for the student body,” she said. “We’re here because God called us, and it’s understanding that one event can open up a lot of clarity and understanding of who God is and how He created us to be His. We’re not necessarily the same skin tone, not the same hair type, backgrounds or accents, but we’re here to meet people where they are at, and who they are.”

Three friends, freshmen Elaina Smith and Sarah Johnson and junior Kenneth Wingfield, attended NOLA Nights together and said events like that allow them to experience a small part of the Bayou.

“When you go here (to Liberty), there are so many diverse students and cultures that come to this place,” said Johnson, a music student. “It’s so nice that we don’t just have the predominant culture around here, but that we can experience the different backgrounds and different types of music that everybody brings here.”

Wingfield, also a music student who plays in Liberty’s jazz ensemble, said he attended the event to “wind down from the week,” and to take in the different presentations of the history of jazz music.

Having events like NOLA Nights is something he said has become more common since he enrolled at Liberty just over two years ago.

“I haven’t been to any jazz events here outside of the ones that I’m usually in,” Wingfield said. “Bringing in professional players for us to watch is good for us music students, but it’s just great to see how things have come along in that we can learn about other cultures. Seeing more events like this is a great thing for our diverse student body.”

RDU Jazz band plays during NOLA Nights in the LaHaye Event Space on Feb. 23, 2024.

Smith said her favorite part was seeing what can be described as a little taste of Heaven.

“Events like these really show us how we can further learn about people’s culture and ways of life together, and meet them where they’re at, but what I like the most is we can see how diverse our school’s community in Christ can be.”

LU ONE (Opportunity & Enrichment) encompasses the Office of Equity & Inclusion (OEI); the Office of Disability Accommodation Support (ODAS), which coordinates academic support for Liberty University students with disabilities; and the International Student Center (ISC), which supports Liberty’s international students and promotes international traditions through on-campus workshops and events. To learn more information about LU ONE and stay up to date on upcoming events, visit the office’s website.

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