Campus organizations help students cope with tough semester
Tensions in the last few months have left many feeling drained
For the last few months, AU students have attended vigils and protests in response to tragedies and tensions on campus.
This semester in particular has been especially draining for many students on AU’s campus, Michele Carter, a professor in the Department of Psychology, said.
Carter said that in recent history, certain events or factors that cause students stress are becoming increasingly prevalent on the AU campus. Although Carter explained the difficulty of pinpointing the true cause of student’s stress, he had some ideas on what could be causing an increased anxiety in the past several years and particularly this semester. While AU’s diverse campus is one of its greatest successes, Carter explains, it also brings with it its own set of difficulties.
“One [cause] is that we’re becoming a more diverse campus,” Carter said. “And the more diverse we become, the greater the probability that we’re going to have people of different viewpoints coming together, which sometimes means that they’re going to be expressing things differently, and there’s going to be people who hold certain views of groups that will get expressed. So, I think that’s a cause.”
The external stressors Carter alludes to have been increasingly prevalent on campus in the last semester. In September, hundreds of students gathered to protest the University's response to racist incidents in AndersonHall and to increase awareness around racial issues on campus. In November, the University community mourned the loss of sophomore Z'ane Davis-Smith. The next week, the community saw Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election, a visit from the Westboro Baptist Church and subsequent tensions between students on campus.
President Devontae Torriente said that AU Student Government is focusing on supporting all students, particularly those who are marginalized.
“We’re looking to figure out how we can promote, protect and increase resources for a lot of the marginalized students on campus. We’ve seen that students of marginalized identities feel unsafe, feel threatened, insecure, in their place in our community. It’s also important to note that the lack of security that students of marginalized identities feel didn’t necessarily begin last week or this semester. It certainly heightened it.”
Kenzie Phillips, a junior in SOC and the outreach director for AU Club Council, said there have been various reactions from students to each of the different events and tensions this semester, but it has lead to more voices joining the campus discussion.
“There was so much solidarity with the racist events on campus and a lot of solidarity also shown for the people feeling uncomfortable with the Westboro Baptist Church coming; however, I don’t think that same amount was shown with the protest the day after the election because people decided to burn a flag,” Phillips said. “I think a lot of people whose voices are not heard on both sides of the political spectrum have become louder this semester.”
In response to the election, students reacted with heightened emotions, Dean of Students Robert Hradsky said. Subsequently, the Office Of Campus Life is attempting to accommodate all types of student emotion.
“We have students who are feeling a variety of emotions based on personal experience [and] political beliefs,” Hradsky said. “We have some who are very much hurting, who are very distraught, and I think we have other students who are really pleased with the outcome of the election.”
Carter agreed that there has been an outpouring of emotions caused by the controversial outcome of the presidential race, but he also said students will largely express those emotions more outwardly as they become more intense.
“The funny thing about emotions is once they do start getting heightened, you start seeing the behaviors that go along with it. Since we have such a wide variety of viewpoints, we’re gonna see things on both sides,” Carter said. “People start getting warped up and feeling problematic about the election, burning the flag, they indicate one set of emotions. Then you’ll see people on the opposite side, putting swastikas in places to express the other side of things. Unfortunately, we’re not at the end of what’s going on for people.”
Hradsky said he is worried though that these events have damaged interactions between students this semester.
“What concerns me is that because of the heightened emotions, students aren’t listening to each other,” Hradsky said the week of the election. “So, I’m not sure that the conversations we’ve had this week in particular are healthy.”
Phillips said she has noticed as a student and as a member of AU Club Council that this semester, and the election in particular, have harshly affected students’ mental health.
“No matter how you lean politically, there is a burden that comes with the majority of your friends or peers feeling stressed and unsafe. There is definitely a toll on mental health when the feeling of an entire college campus is a bit weighed down,” Phillips said. “There have been discussions in the [Club Council] office and in my classes about how to deal with [the election]. As the person who focuses on the peer-to-peer relationships with the clubs, I think people should feel encouraged to bond with their club community and engage with the larger AU community.”
On the other hand, University Chaplain Reverend Mark Schaefer said his mission is to help students more so with their spiritual health rather than mental health. He said that full and part-time religious communities can be “great places” for students to find a home on campus.
“What you are seeing are people who are going through an identity crisis [and have] a feeling of not belonging, a feeling of alienation [from their communities] and looking to find places of love and acceptance,” Schaefer said.
Those places are available at Kay Spiritual Life Center as a whole, Schaefer said. The day after the presidential election, Rev. Schaefer led a community gathering to provide a forum for grieving or conflicted students to express themselves and reflect on their emotions.
“Students really need to acknowledge the feelings they’re having,” Hradsky said. “They need to take space and time to process these feelings, and acknowledge that they’re not alone. They should take advantages of the opportunities to gather with others and look at ways to move forward.”
Torriente echoed a similar sentiment, saying that his ultimate priority is student safety.
“My goal is to make students feel safe and secure and like they belong on this campus. For me, it’s really important that we consider the exact context of student identities and how having those identities really impacts how they navigate our campus. Beyond just [creating] policy solutions, I think it’s important that we shift how we talk about these issues.”
Phillips said she believes that students need to work to care for both themselves and one another in the wake of the turmoil of this semester.
“Solidarity is important, but it’s not a solution; it’s a step in the right direction,” Phillips said. [It] is an important part of feeling that you’re not alone, but seeking further help is definitely important.”