Alum Behind Davidson’s Labyrinth Gets Fitting Tribute
Little known fact: Hurricane Katrina, one of the largest and most devastating hurricanes to make landfall in the U.S., is indirectly responsible for the construction of a labyrinth on Davidson’s campus.
Labyrinths, not to be confused with mazes, are an ancient type of walking path. People from diverse faiths and traditions have walked labyrinths for centuries for the purpose of meditation, contemplation and prayer. Davidson’s labyrinth, tucked away in a quiet, shady corner of campus called Hobart Park, is modeled after the famous 14th-century labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France.
Now, back to how it came to be there.
Lauren Cunningham ’09 toured Davidson as a high school student, but ultimately decided to attend Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Then, in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina dramatically interrupted her freshman year, leaving Cunningham and all the other Tulane students without a school.
Davidson was one of hundreds of schools across the country to welcome Lauren and other “refugee students” (as they were called) so they could continue their studies until Tulane reopened.
“I am forever grateful that Davidson took me in and gave me a second chance at a ‘normal’ freshman year,” she said.
It was a difficult and emotional transition for Cunningham, but she made friends, got caught up in her classes and fell in love with her new school.
“Lauren felt at home at Davidson pretty quickly,” recalled Lauren’s mother, Beth Cunningham. “That was comforting after the trauma of having all your plans washed away.”
At the end of the fall semester, Davidson invited Cunningham to enroll permanently.
She decided to major in Studio Art, a longtime passion. Cunningham became interested in the relationship between creativity and how the brain works, and learned about labyrinths while researching this connection. As an artist, she was initially drawn to their unique shapes and styles–square, circular, polygonal, concentric, Medieval, Roman and more–but her interest in the potential effects of labyrinths on well-being evolved as she read compelling stories about how people react to the spaces.
“It was fascinating to me that the simple act of walking around a designed path could have a profound impact on a person,” she said. “I mentioned to my advisor [Art Professor] Cort Savage about how Davidson students could really benefit from a labyrinth, and he encouraged me to pursue the idea.”
With the support of a committee of Davidson faculty, staff and students, Cunningham used the interdisciplinary nature of labyrinths to build a case for constructing one on campus.
The Davidson College Chaplains’ Office was an early and eager advocate.
“I saw great value in it, so when Lauren approached me and others with the idea, I was thrilled,” Chaplain Rob Spach ’84 said. “We set up fundraising initiatives to help get it going, and students got excited about it.”
Almost two years and lots of hard work later, the necessary funds for the labyrinth were raised, and it was installed in April 2009—a month before Cunningham’s commencement.
Cunningham left a permanent mark on campus and now, thanks to a generous gift from her parents Bob and Beth Cunningham, the labyrinth will be named the Lauren Cunningham ’09 Labyrinth.
“This gift is a way for us to honor Lauren and the work she put into making this idea a reality. It is also a way for us to thank Davidson for all they did for her and for us,” Bob Cunningham said. “The school was there for us when we needed help, and Lauren thrived there.”
Since its installation, the labyrinth has been used by students, faculty, staff and community members as a place to find peace, meditate and more. Student groups hold workshops and walking meditations there, and it serves as a welcoming space for worship services, too.
“I have lots of examples of people for whom the labyrinth is an important part of their lives,” Spach said. “One alum who is now a pastor would run every morning and end at the labyrinth to walk it. It was part of their daily rhythm and well-being.”
Student health and well-being is a priority for colleges and universities, and Davidson is no exception. The Chaplains’ Office, now a team of six, offers mindfulness and meditation as one area of focus among many. The Center for Student Health and Well-Being is expanding by the day, recently adding specialized counselors and other resources to better serve the campus community.
Situated uniquely among a number of invaluable campus resources, the Lauren Cunningham ’09 Labyrinth offers students, faculty, staff and visitors the opportunity to take a moment, take a breath and center themselves in an increasingly busy, distracting world.
We hope you’ll visit.