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Discovering tragedy from thousands of miles away

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This semester, I am lucky enough to be studying abroad at the University of St Andrews in St Andrews, Scotland. The past month has been a whirlwind of re-experiencing freshers’ orientation, going out to pubs (I’m legal here!), and remembering how school works. As I immersed myself in this new place, Swarthmore remained far from my mind. If I imagined campus at all, I figured that nothing much was happening. My life might be fast-paced and constantly in flux, but Swarthmore could only be steady and unchanging.

The death of Meg Spencer on September 24 shook me more than I realized. I did not know Meg, but I recognized her from the countless hours I spent in Cornell Library over the past two years. I always joke that Cornell is like my second home at Swat, but Meg’s death served as a stark reminder that my words held more truth than jest. Sitting in my room, with its picturesque view of the town and the hills beyond, I felt the stable Swarthmore of my imagination sway ominously on its foundation.

A little over a week later, that foundation crumbled entirely when I received an email from newly inaugurated President Smith, informing the community that Anthony Chiarenza ‘18 had passed away unexpectedly. I am very grateful that I received the news while at an ultimate frisbee tournament in Edinburgh; the intensity of the tournament forced me to focus on something other than tragedy.

Receiving news of Anthony’s death via email was like having a bucket of cold water poured over my head. I could not believe it. Since Meg’s passing, I had made sure to keep track of Swat news a little more carefully than usual (i.e., I actually glanced at most of the dozens of emails I received every day before deleting them). I knew that President Smith’s inauguration was coming up and I felt some vicarious excitement over those festivities. It seemed unbelievably perverse, like a giant middle finger from the universe. What should have been a moment of renewal for the community became a moment of grief and pain.

I felt very alone on Saturday and Sunday. Isolated. Every now and then I paused and wished I were 3,000 miles away, back at Swarthmore, back with my people. Like any good millennial, I remedied this feeling of isolation by sharing my life with a lot of people I don’t really know. I told my roommate about it, I told my roommate’s friends about it, I told a girl from Bryn Mawr about it, I told some of the members of my ultimate team about it. I made a Facebook status sending support and love to all my Swatties. I liked any Facebook status that echoed or improved on those sentiments. I grasped at any connection to Swarthmore and the people I love there (which, it turns out, is basically all of you).

The most relief I felt last weekend was when a friend messaged me and a few other study abroad people, telling us that one of our mutual friends knew Anthony well and asking us to show our support for her. Her demand (I would say request, but the message had a characteristically and gratifyingly familiar dictatorial tone) propelled me into action, giving me a purpose and allowing me to do something, even an ocean away. So I messaged our friend, told her how sorry I was, and reminded her that the people around her, including me (despite my distance), were there to support her. Later, I also messaged another friend, someone I don’t know well, but who I know was good friends with Anthony.

I felt so much more at peace after sending just a few lines expressing my sympathy. I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. If you need someone to talk to, I’m here for you.

Literally hours after sending that message, I got Mike Hill’s Awareness Bulletin informing students that “threats of violence ha[d] been made against ‘an unspecified university near Philadelphia’” for the next day. I was lying in bed when I saw it and, as my roommate can attest, I started laughing hysterically in response. What world do we live in that my fear of a gunman terrorizing Swarthmore is legitimate or even remotely founded in reality? I went to bed and woke up the next morning anxious. My grief about the loss of Anthony mingled with my anxiety and I feared that the next email I got would be a report of a shooting on campus. (I also suspect that I have a very active imagination.)

The threats said that something bad would go down at 2 pm Eastern time, so I factored in the time difference and held my breath until 7 pm in Scotland. As you know, 7 pm came and went and nothing happened. I let myself breathe again and I hope you did, too.

I know from friends on campus that the current mood at Swarthmore is somber, gray, and full of apprehension. My friend Abigail Henderson ’15, who is away from campus because she is a real adult these days, wrote in a Facebook status, “My heart hurts for Swarthmore and all of my friends there. Staying present in my Connecticut life will be hard today, but I wouldn’t want my heart to be anywhere else. Take care of yourselves, Swatties. I love you.” Her words express how I feel as a Swattie abroad during this difficult time. I am engaged with the St Andrews community, but it is impossible for me to leave Swarthmore behind.

At small liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore, the word “community” gets thrown around so much that it starts to lose its meaning. I have searched for, but not found, a silver lining or a chance for redemption in the loss that Swarthmore has experienced over the past couple of weeks. I have, however, found community. Community is not the stable, rock solid structure that I thought it was; in fact, it is a whole lot of people trying to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after an earthquake. I am so far away from Swarthmore College, but, maybe for the first time, I feel close to the Swarthmore community.

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