Students need more time and support to grieve and heal

This past weekend marks for many students the most difficult and tragic time that we have experienced while at Swarthmore. Those who were close to Anthony Chiarenza are grieving his sudden and tragic passing, in a way that is probably unimaginable for those of us who were not lucky enough to be his friend. Even those of us not grieving this as a personal loss are shaken and saddened. Then came the FBI’s security threat warning about possible violence against a Philadelphia college.  Coming on the heels of an already unbelievably sad weekend, the threat left many students wracked with anxiety and fear.  We at the Phoenix believe that while the administration has made admirable efforts to support students at this difficult time, not enough was done to allow scared and grieving students to take time off from the grind of school work in order to process and to heal.

As these heartbreaking and terrifying events built on each other, many students were virtually incapacitated by their sadness, apprehension, and fear. A number of students left campus and drove home or to friends’ houses for the day in order to recuperate and avoid any potential violence. Many more abandoned class and even meals at Sharples in order to stay away from crowded public places on campus, electing to stay in their rooms, where they felt more safe.  Many students spent the day with close friends, and took time to call their families and loved ones on the phone.

The message coming from the President and Dean’s Office during this time has been one of sympathy and support, and we commend the administrators for their offerings of academic accommodations to those most affected, as well as CAPS and the religious student advisors for being available to students in need of emotional support.

Despite the official message that we should all prioritize our grieving, our healing, and our mental health over our academic and extracurricular obligations, many students found it nearly impossible to take a moment off of school to do these things. There were students who wanted to spend Saturday night in the company of friends but felt they couldn’t sacrifice a night of studying, who missed the Collection in Anthony’s honor because they were doing homework, and who went to class even while feeling shaken and scared early this week because it didn’t seem possible or acceptable not to. In the wake of it all, classes were in session on Monday, and regardless of the emotional turmoil.  From the outside, it may have seemed like business as usual at Swarthmore, but students and faculty alike noticed the discomfort, sadness, and anxiety still present, in classes and around campus.

Some students informed their professors that they would be missing class due to fears about safety on Monday. While many were met with understanding responses, some received emails from professors that threatened grade penalties for the absence, invalidated students’ concerns, and called on them to be more brave and overcome their fears. Besides simply being inappropriate, we at the Phoenix believe that these comments demonstrate a disregard for students’ emotional well-being and health in general. The message is entirely inconsistent with the work of administrators over the weekend to provide students with the care they need at this difficult time.

The professors who wrote such emails may be exceptional in their insensitivity, but their sentiments are indicative of a more widely felt problem which has become clear in the last few days. It feels impossible for most Swarthmore students to stop — to stop working, to stop studying, to stop preparing for the next test, essay, lab report. Even when we are told to take care of ourselves and each other, to dedicate our time and energy to grief and, when possible, to healing, there’s a feeling that if we stop for a moment, or we will never be able to catch up again. There are legitimate reasons not to cancel school in response to a security threat, but given that students were already overwhelmed with grief, cancelling classes in this case would have been appropriate. This week has revealed how close many Swarthmore students are to breaking down, and how little room we have to give, even when tragedy has struck and we need a moment — or many moments — to stop and breathe.

Again, we at the Phoenix appreciate the efforts of the administration to provide us with resources and care, and we believe they are made in earnest. But the fact we are also receiving the message that taking time away from academics will inevitably have consequences, and that our schoolwork comes above all our emotional needs, is also a critical problem that must be addressed. There must be work by administrators and faculty, not only at this time but all the time, to make space for students dealing with sadness and fear to take care of themselves and not be guilted or pressured into prioritizing schoolwork above all else.

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