Pilgrimage to Penfield to stay on campus

Students+visit+Jesse+Mercer%27s+gravesite+during+2019%27s+Pilgrimage+to+Penfield.

Image: Lars Lonnroth

Students visit Jesse Mercer’s gravesite during 2019’s Pilgrimage to Penfield.

Every fall, first-year students load onto charter buses and make the “Pilgrimage to Penfield,” where students go to the site of Mercer’s founding. This year, however, new students will be attending a reimagined version of Pilgrimage to Penfield Oct. 17 in Five Star Stadium as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While students won’t be traveling to Penfield this year, Mercer’s Student Government Association’s Heritage Life Committee, which organizes the event, have been working with university administration to  re-strategize how the event will be held. 

Despite the huge change, Heritage Life Committee Chair Mary-Angel Ekezie said Pilgrimage to Penfield will still teach students about the ideas, goals and ideals of its founders.

“It helps give us as Mercerians a sense of where we started as a school and how we progressed to become who we are today and how that legacy of how we started at Penfield, Georgia, still lives on,” Ekezie said. “Pilgrimage to Penfield is a way to honor that and those goals and aspirations that the founders of Mercer University had, and how we have taken those and evolved to become the great institution we are today.”

Ekezie said the event being in Five Star stadium rather than Penfield will not take away from the event’s usefulness for first-year students.

“I think we will still be able to engage students in that way and help them get acclimated with Mercer traditions like Pilgrimage to Penfield,” Ekezie said.

Doug Pearson, Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students and the advisor to SGA, suggested that the necessary changes to hold the pilgrimage off campus would be too detrimental to the purpose of the event.

The logistics of transporting a high number of students on buses, and through the program safely, continued to push the planning group towards having smaller numbers, which we did not like,” Pearson wrote in an email to The Cluster.  “Part of the fun of the event was the trip up and back where students get to meet and interact with their classmates. Social distancing would have negatively impacted much of this. So the committee creatively thought of ways to re-envision the event in a way that could involve more students safely.” 

After the individual senators on SGA were assigned to their committees and Ekezie assembled her Heritage Life Committee team, she decided to begin focusing on the pilgrimage, since that would be Heritage Life’s first main event they would put on for students this fall. 

“Over the summer, we started crafting everything,” Ekezie said. “Right now we are in advertising, getting the word out about our event, and finalizing a few other details.”

The first major issue in the planning stage was the number of people that SGA wanted to have in attendance, and how much those numbers would have to be shaved down in order to keep the event safe during the pandemic. However, during their planning process, Pearson suggested a major shift in the plans: to hold the Pilgrimage on campus.

Naturally, removing the journey from the pilgrimage seems that it could lessen the impact of the pilgrimage. However, Ekezie expressed her confidence that the event would still instigate the desired movement and growth in the students.

“In past years, Pilgrimage has been just that: a journey to Penfield, Georgia,” Ekezie said. “But this year since we are keeping it on campus, we are still going to try to incorporate that feel of a pilgrimage, but I guess just at home base at Mercer.”

Ekezie said that having it on campus will still capture the evolution of Mercer as they normally do. But having it on campus instead of at Penfield may shift the focus of the event to the journey students made to get to Mercer, rather than the journey they would normally make from Mercer to Penfield under normal circumstances. 

”We are working on ways to still incorporate that feel of a journey through Mercer and our history — where we started as a school, and how we progressed from that to where we are now,” Ekezie said. “I think having on campus is still going to convey that, because all the first-years who are attending have been here for about a month now. And they are still journeying from wherever they came from to Mercer, (and) discovering Mercer.”

Ekezie said the event will still have the originally intended effect: a sprout of growth among the new students. She said that by seeing how much Mercer has grown and spread out its influence from its humble beginnings at Penfield, Mercer’s students will be encouraged to push outward, expand their horizons and change the world.

“The importance of going to Penfield is for each student to reflect on their own personal journey throughout college, and how they are embarking on this journey, for themselves, to become the best versions of themselves,” Ekezie said. “In the same way, students when they come here, particularly freshmen, have the opportunity to invest in themselves, and become the best person they can be, and therefore change the world…. So yes, the main takeaway of Pilgrimage is going to Penfield, but also the personal reflection on ‘who do I want to be when I finish my time here at Mercer?’”