Responding to Campus Events
Posted on November 5, 2013
D-Log: November 5, 2013
It’s a challenging time of year at Wheaton as it is on many college campuses. Some approach the end of the semester and exams with a bit of trepidation, others with significant anxiety, and the rest of us somewhere in between. The holidays are on the horizon, and while for some of us, these are happy times that we look forward to, for others these provoke the most challenging of family dynamics and disappointments. And of course, the weather affects us. We have put away our summer clothes for good and we know what’s coming: cold November rains, lovely but treacherous December snowstorms and then the long grey slush-filled slog of January, February and March.
Yes, challenging times. Our community is put to the test on many fronts as we struggle to keep our morale up, to keep our focus on our work, to find beauty in a time of year that poets have for centuries equated with decay and death. We feel overwhelmed at times by negative news cycles, by seemingly intractable problems on the national and international scene. We are in desperate need of good news but seem to only hear bad.
In the past few weeks we have had some hard things happen at Wheaton, and each time, this community has risen to the challenge. Several weeks ago, a student posted an anonymous message on the Wheaton Confessions page that described a sense of despair and an intent to commit suicide. Wheaton students immediately responded with some of the most supportive and compassionate words I’ve read. The college was able, with the assistance of law enforcement, to identify the student who posted the message (who did not act on the threat to harm him/herself), and assist that student in getting the support needed. Last week, a different student was badly injured in a fall from the roof of the Mars Center. He is recovering, but has a long road ahead of him due to the severity of the injuries. His friends and faculty have been visiting him and his family, and I know they feel the support and love that people at Wheaton have for him. It will undoubtedly help his healing.
Some of you have asked why, in neither of these situations, was a campus-wide email sent out. We do send emails when certain things happen on campus, like bias-related graffiti or a sexual assault. In those cases, we communicate in order to raise awareness of a possible crime or threat to other students. In neither of the incidents mentioned in the previous paragraph did we believe there was a threat to another student. What we did believe, and will continue to use as a guiding principle in our decision-making, is that even in a small, close-knit community, students—you—have a right to privacy. My job requires me to frequently be involved in situations of student injury, illness, threats of self-harm, and other challenging crises. Members of our staff work with you in this way all the time. I think it’s important for you all to know that when we are trying to help you, we will respect your privacy and practice the same sort of discretion we would want for ourselves during difficult times. That belief—that we will not share your most private matters with the community—may be what encourages you to ask for help. I hope you know that I am a pretty transparent person and that on more than one occasion I have stood in front of you and answered your questions. You know (if you are reading this) that I communicate in a pretty honest way.
But those of you whom I have worked with through personal crises also know that I can be trusted to keep your personal matters between us. The same is true of other staff who are charged with your care.
Over the next few months, you’ll be hearing more about two initiatives being led by our new health educator Emily Dimon and our new Counseling Center director Jeff Klug. Emily is helping students start a chapter of Active Minds, a national group that empowers students to change the perception about mental health on college campuses. I encourage you to join this group to work toward a more positive experience for all students, but especially those who struggle with emotional challenges and mental illness. Emily and Jeff are also launching our participation in another national effort called QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer). QPR is an excellent training program designed to help people recognize the signs that someone may be suicidal and assist them in getting the support they need. We will be asking a small group of faculty, staff and students to become certified as QPR trainers who can then train larger groups on these important strategies. If you’re interested in learning more about QPR, please contact Emily or Jeff.
Lastly, I’d like to share this: anyone who has a job like mine is asked, on a regular basis, about the motivation a student, or group of students, had when they did something. I have learned one thing—maybe only one; I’m not sure about some others—in my half-century of living and my quarter century of working with college students: no one can ever truly know the heart of another person. No one can say, with absolute certainty, what someone’s motivation was when they did something. It is folly to think we can. And out of respect for your individuality, your own issues, your unpredictability as students and humans, I much prefer to avoid speculation and instead focus on the strength and kindness you show on a regular basis. That’s what’s kept me coming to work for 25 years, and I hope you find it encouraging as well.