Choosing resilience over defeat

How the Class of 2018 has interacted with the tragedies marking the past four years

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Following the white supremacist rallies of Aug.11 and 12, thousands of students, faculty, alumni and Charlottesville residents gathered for a peaceful march and candlelit vigil on the Lawn to promote love and inclusion in response to the hatred displayed at the demonstrations. 

Kate Bellows | Cavalier Daily

From almost the moment they stepped onto Grounds, the Class of 2018 has been faced with adversity. During their past four years at the University, they have encountered tragedy and trauma to the extent that many college students never will. The unsettling events of 2014 and 2015 marked the class’s first year as one of the University’s most difficult in recent memory, and the lingering effects of Aug.11 and 12 cast a shadow over their fourth year. 

At some points, students said that it seemed like the list of disturbing events would never end — it was just one thing after another. However, in the midst of hardship, many agree that there was a running thread of strength. Despite all of the pain the University community has endured over the past four years, graduating students can attest to the power of camaraderie, activism, dialogue and healing. These events have marked the Class of 2018’s college experiences, shaping them into the people they are today and showing them — above anything else — the possibility of resilience. 

Glimpsing the power of the community

In September of 2014, when members of the Class of 2018 were mere weeks into their college careers, then-second-year College student Hannah Graham went missing. Her disappearance led to a police investigation and induced an atmosphere of worry and confusion on Grounds. Many current fourth-years remember this time vividly, and all of the emotions that came with it. 

For some students, this event was so startling and unnerving that they did not know what to feel. The uncertainty of the situation was compounded with the usual stresses and worries that coincide with the start of college and living on one’s own.

“It was a very strange feeling … I still have trouble putting a label on it, even today,” said fourth-year Engineering student Stephen Pancrazio. “It’s of one of those things where, when you first get into school, you’re not sure what to expect in the first place…and it became scary for a bit. It was really just ... I guess the word is ‘surreal.’ And it still kind of is.”

Graham was involved in the Virginia Alpine Ski and Snowboard Team during her time at the University. Fourth-year College student Elizabeth Ellis joined VASST early on in her first year, and though she did not get to know Graham before her disappearance, she said she noticed the event’s profound effects among her teammates and friends.

“I hadn’t gotten super involved in VASST by that point, but it was super hard watching my friends who were older and did know her respond to that,” Ellis said. “It was just really scary and really sad.”

Fourth-year College student Reade Pickert entered college knowing that she wanted to be a journalist, but what she did not anticipate were the emotional and strenuous circumstances that her first news assignment would involve. Pickert was sent by The Cavalier Daily to report on Graham’s search party, and she said that this experience was simultaneously extremely difficult and formative. 

“I’d never had to approach anyone to ask questions or anything like that, and I went to the search party and suddenly I was looking at people who were grieving and trying to ask them questions about Hannah,” Pickert said. “My first couple articles involved stuff around Hannah Graham, and it feels weird being four years later and going into a career in journalism and something that was so traumatic there right at the beginning has been such an impactful part here at the end.”

After a month-long search, Graham’s remains were found in Albemarle County in October 2014, and Charlottesville resident Jesse Matthew was charged with abduction with intent to defile. For some students, Graham’s death marked the first time they encountered real tragedy. Pickert said that the aftermath of this discovery was her first time dealing with death, and the fact that she was relatively alone in an unfamiliar environment made the experience even more painful. 

“So here I was at college and a month in, and I didn’t have anyone from my school that I knew who went here and I barely knew my roommate, and I was experiencing death for the first time alone,” Pickert said. “And I was really shaken up about it.”

Counseling and Psychological Services director Nicole Ruzek said that usually in the event of a student’s death, the people who seek CAPS services have personal connections to the student. In the case of Graham’s death, however, Ruzek said that there was a significant increase in the amount of students more removed from the situation who contacted CAPS for counseling, which exemplified the trauma that her death sparked in the community.  

“This time we were seeing students who had no relationship with Hannah because it was a publicized and frightening event for a lot of students,” Ruzek said. 

Several students pointed to instances of healing as being emblematic of their experiences during these difficult weeks. Pickert said that her resident advisor brought her hall to the September candlelit vigil for Graham in the Amphitheater, and this moment marked the first time that she felt like she belonged to a community at the University.

“You just looked around and there are just tons and tons of people standing room only in the Amphitheater and around with candles, as different people spoke about how wonderful Hannah was,” Pickert said. “It just felt like everyone was coming together for a student whether they knew her or not, because they knew that she was a vital part of the University community, and I thought that was beautiful.”

These moments of healing unfolded on the individual scale as well. Fourth-year College student Erik Roberts, who was elected first-year class president that same fall, recounted a personal story that stands out in his memory from this time. One late afternoon, he was walking by the memorial that VASST had constructed for Hannah — a giant chair made out of colorful skis by the Whispering Wall — when he saw a girl crying beside it. 

Even though they had never met before, Roberts sat down next to her and attempted to comfort her. He learned that she was the president of VASST and was reeling from Graham’s loss. In this moment that dissolved the line between strangers and friends, Roberts said that he gained a new sense of understanding about everything that had happened in the past month. 

“We sort of just sat there and I tried to be a presence for her while she cried and cried and cried,” Roberts said. “And she and I became friends after that, and have been friends for a couple years now … but that was sort of the experience that really brought into reality how serious what had happened was, and how amazing Hannah was as a person and how much this is going to affect people on a national scale with the safety issues that involved.”

Pulling back the curtain

In late November, as the dust was just beginning to settle after Graham’s death, Rolling Stone Magazine published its story, “A Rape on Campus,” which detailed the graphicly violent sexual assault of an anonymous University student called “Jackie” at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. The aftermath of the article’s publication, which included the fraternity’s suspension and a criminal investigation into the incident, rocked the already-fragile community and sparked outrage among the student body. 

Pickert said that reading the story for the first time shattered her previous perceptions of the University. 

“It was like, as the point that the author had wanted — whip back the curtain of this seemingly perfect school and this is what you actually have, this is what students are actually experiencing,” Pickert said. “It was just shell-shocking. I didn’t know what to do … I was incredulous. I could not believe the story and yet I did because there was no reason not to believe it.”

The Rolling Stone article brought safety issues to the center of attention, much like Graham’s murder did. Pancrazio said that though he did not feel unsafe in the community, he recognized that many people did, and concern for his peers shaped his perception of these events.

“I think it didn’t turn into a conversation about my safety because that was never the issue … but it turned into a conversation about how can we make the environment safer for others?” Pancrazio said. “Me and my mom had plenty of conversations like what’s the right thing to do at a party, what’s the right thing to do here, there, wherever.”

The article most notably elevated the issue of sexual assault in the University’s consciousness. As students dealt with initial shock and disgust, many chose to be proactive and began calling for change. 

“It really put into perspective, I think, for the student body how pressing of an issue that is, the fact that this isn’t something to consider passively, but that we need to do something now, because who else is gonna do it?” said Roberts. “And people are gonna suffer if we don’t.”

A few weeks after the article’s initial publication, Rolling Stone issued a partial retraction after the accuracy of the narrative was called into question. The magazine asked the Columbia School of Journalism to conduct a review, which ultimately found the article was full of factual discrepancies and journalistic failures at every level. The author did not reach out to Jackie’s friends to verify her story or confirm the existence of Jackie’s alleged attacker, and her editors did not push for clarification. Charlottesville police would also find that the evidence provided in the article was not substantial enough to continue their investigation, and Phi Psi was officially reinstated.

Pickert said that she had been empowered by the empathy and activism shown by students across the University community in the article’s initial aftermath, but once the article was retracted, it was frustrating and disheartening to watch many people’s attitudes shift back to the way they were before.

“You see this huge wave of support and it’s thrilling and exciting — and then when the article proved to not be accurate, watching that wave die was incredibly sad,” Pickert said. “Because it suddenly became a rhetoric in a conversation of ‘We don’t have a problem here,’ instead of saying well, maybe this one account wasn’t correct, but every college campus in America has a problem with this … You were again left with pulling the curtain back, of U.Va. is perfect again.”

Even though Jackie’s account proved to be false, the entire endeavor caused University administration to address issues pertaining to Greek Life and alcohol and drug use. In December 2014, University President Teresa Sullivan announced an ad-hoc committee to focus on student culture, sexual assault prevention and community response. In January 2015, the University also required all Greek organizations to sign new Fraternal Organization Agreements, whose stipulations included maintaining guest lists for parties, forbidding previously mixed drinks or punches, providing non-alcoholic beverages and requiring sober brothers to supervise the bar. The FOA’s measures were enacted to enhance the safety of Greek events, but were met with protest by some organizations who said that they violated student and organizational rights. 

The article’s ramifications lasted well past that academic year, as seen in the lawsuits surrounding it. In November 2015, Phi Psi sued Rolling Stone and writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely for $25 million. Their case was settled in June 2017, and the fraternity won $1.65 million. Dean Nicole Eramo also filed a $7.5 million defamation lawsuit against Erdely, Rolling Stone and Wenner Media Inc., and the three-week trial began in October 2016. The jury sided with Eramo and she was awarded $3 million. After the attorneys for the defendants attempted to overturn the jury’s verdict in December 2016, Erdely filed a motion for the case’s dismissal and reached a settlement  in April 2017. 

Reframing conversations

The University found itself under national scrutiny once again a few months later in March 2015, when then-third-year College student Martese Johnson suffered a head injury during a violent arrest outside of Trinity Irish Pub. Johnson was charged with resisting arrest after being refused entry to the bar, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for an investigation into the excessive force used by the ABC officer.

Fourth-year Engineering student Brandt Welch remembers hearing the news while sitting in his first-year hall’s study room, and feeling a mix of emotions as a result.

“My immediate reaction was that this was somebody that I knew, kind of in passing, so I was pretty jarred at first,” Welch said. “I was also worried, frustrated, angry, because I knew him to be a nice guy and that was kind of his reputation around Grounds.”

In the days and weeks following this event, many members of the University community rallied to protest Johnson’s arrest and speak out against police brutality. However, Welch said that he knew several people who were apathetic to the whole situation, which made him feel somewhat alone in his initial outrage.

“I felt a little bit isolated in my hall because ... I was the only one who was frustrated and angry about the situation,” Welch said. “Other people, it didn’t really seem to affect them or they didn’t seem to care. We had very opposing views of the situation, and I think that’s from having different experiences going into it.”

Welch said Johnson’s arrest ignited his desire to participate more meaningfully in the community and caused him to examine race relations at the University more closely.

“It made want to get a lot more involved,” Welch said. “It made me a lot more aware of the fact that I’m a black student at a predominantly white space at the University and that I need to be aware of that and if I try to ignore it, I wouldn’t be successful in doing so.”

Welch ended up joining Johnson’s fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, the next school year. Three years after the arrest, he believes that the event speaks to issues that run deeper and farther than what the Charlottesville or the University community can encompass.

“I don’t think we can blame U.Va or Charlottesville really,” Welch said. “I think it’s part of a larger system that we have in this country.”

Pancrazio said he made connections from Johnson’s arrest to other widely-broadcasted instances of police brutality and racial tension. 

“I think if you contextualize it within like, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, any other time that a minority has been taken advantage of by an authority or someone who resembles law enforcement, you understand the point — you understand why it’s an incident,” Pancrazio said. 

Other students also aligned Johnson’s arrest with the broader narrative of race relations, both in the local community and nation-wide. Roberts said that the event’s proximity made him take a more active role in conversations about race. 

“I think the history of race relations, race activism etc. at UVA is so complex…that it’s hard to place Martese as its own isolated incident, because in reality it was a culmination of many events,” Roberts said. “But I do think that it reframed the conversation. It took this conversation that might have been on the periphery and put it in the centerfold of what we needed to deal with as a student body. I think a lot more people were sort of called to action by that.”

In October 2015, Johnson filed a $3 million lawsuit against ABC agents, and a jury trial is set for this October. 

Shaping a tumultuous year

With the University constantly in the center of national news during the Class of 2018’s first year, some students said that they felt like they were stuck in an unending cycle of traumatic events.

“It seemed like you were either experiencing the tragedy or living in the aftermath of it,” Welch said. “The experience is kind of like a blur when it’s happening and the news comes out and the aftermath also moves really quick. You know, you’re just thinking of how to deal with it and process it, while getting through school at the time. I think my first year just flew by.”

For many, there was nothing else to compare it to. The unsettling events that marked the year on a larger scale manifested themselves in the daily rituals of their college experiences.

“Since it was my first year of college, I didn’t know anything different,” Pickert said. “That’s just what it was. You got used to … knowing that you were going to have to keep your head down when a reporter came up to talk to you in front of Alderman Library to ask you a question. Or, there was always a news station car parked between Alderman and Monroe ... And you have all those things, but at the same time, I loved my first year. And those are all key parts of my experience here and me becoming the person that I am today.”

Like Pickert, Ellis said that what she had learned from the events of her first year accelerated her growing process and made her more mindful about certain issues facing the University community. 

“I think it’s made me more mature, and more understanding about the real world and what goes on there, which made it less of a bubble-like experience,” Ellis said. “Obviously I wouldn’t have wanted any of these things to happen, but ultimately it’s made me grow more as a person…as a human, made me more empathetic, more thoughtful about a lot of things.”

Defying hatred on Grounds

The next two years went by in a quieter fashion for the Class of 2018. Grounds was relatively peaceful compared the chaos of 2014 and 2015. This atmosphere was shattered, however, in the weeks leading up to the start of this past year at the University. 

On the night of Aug. 11, Roberts was moving into his Lawn room when his senior resident told him that the torchlit white supremacist march was about to happen mere steps away from his door. Roberts and his parents decided to leave Grounds. Though he was thankful that he did not have to witness the actual march, Roberts said he felt more personally affected by this event than any of the events of his first year. 

“This in many ways felt different and in many ways felt the same,” Roberts said. “It felt different and more personal for me, because I’m Jewish and I have a mezuzah on my door … and I can only imagine — I had not put it up yet — but I can only imagine what a Neo-Nazi white supremacist would do walking by in a protest with a lit torch and seeing a Jewish prayer scroll. I don’t even like hypothesizing about that.”

The following day at the Unite the Right rally, local resident Heather Heyer was killed when a car plowed through a crowd of peaceful counter-protestors on the Downtown Mall. The effects of this tragedy were felt nationwide, but especially lingered in the University community as students started to make their way back to Grounds for the start of the fall semester.

Thousands of students, faculty, alumni and Charlottesville residents gathered for a peaceful march and candlelit vigil on the Lawn to promote love and inclusion in response to the hatred displayed at the rally. Community members also joined in solidarity to protest the events of Aug. 11 and 12 and hear the Black Student Alliance’s list of demands at the “March to Reclaim Our Grounds.” 

Welch said that the rally’s blatant hatred was something that students could unite against, which helped initiate healing after the trauma. He said that this issue was not as divisive as Johnson’s arrest — he sees it as less of a gray area. 

“It was different because this seemed like it was a unified thing the student body could get against,” Welch said. “With Martese in particular, the student body was split, and it made different sides feel angry and frustrated and alienated and didn’t really bring us together. But I think the Unite the Right rally had that effect in some way.”

One connection that Roberts made between some of the traumatic events of his first year and the events of Aug. 11 and 12 was that there was the same sense of them being the results of things built up over time — reactions to difficult issues being brought to the surface.

“I guess it was very much another one of those experiences of having our bubbles burst,” Roberts said. “Just because we’re living in a safe college town, we’ve got Honor, we can leave our laptops unguarded in a library ... that doesn't mean that we’re shielded from racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia. Not only are we not shielded from them, they are maybe even invited here, because of who we are and what we stand for. And that’s a tough fact to swallow.”

Proving resilience

Though every class at the University over the past several years has experienced traumas and tragedies to some degree, the class of 2018 has had their undergraduate experiences bookended by some of the most trying events in the University’s history. 

“I think that the sort of uniqueness of my class is that we got clobbered by one event after the next after the next after the next … We’re all kind of dealing with bits and pieces of these things, but the Class of 2018 has been here for every piece of it,” Roberts said. “The class could have either engaged or disengaged, and I think that we have very much engaged — we have very much taken that active mindset toward all these things.”

Many students agree that what emerged from the turbulent past four years is the ability to engage in productive conversation and to attempt to instigate change. Pickert admires the fact that her classmates do not shy away from making their voices heard, especially when they have something important to say.

“I think our class has been really, really good about dialogue,” Pickert said. “I think that when one of these things happens, no one is scared to talk about how they feel, or write an editorial about how they feel, or organize an event where we can show how we feel. All of those things I think contribute to feeling like you have some kind of control, in a world where we have no control.”

The sheer amount of hardships that current fourth-year students have weathered as a class is almost unprecedented at the University, but Welch said that the lessons he and his class have learned will allow them to better cope with tragedy in the future. 

“We’ve had to deal with a lot of messed-up stuff that most students don’t have to deal with,” Welch said. “We might be a little more in tune with the things going on around us and a little more equipped to deal with things. But inevitably, bad things will happen in the future, and in a way that other students didn’t, we had the tools to deal with those things in a productive and effective way — through activism, philanthropy … we have those tools and that experience.”

Above all, Roberts believes that this graduating class has continually chosen resilience instead of defeat. These events have shaped them into the kind of people who look out for each other instead of just themselves, who can recognize injustice in the place they love and speak out against it and who can overcome just about anything with the community at their side. 

“The Class of 2018, in my opinion, has somewhat of an ethos that runs through it that has chosen resilience,” Roberts said. “We haven’t given up … like I could see a class doing, and I think that’s really a testament to the people in the community that we have, and I’m very, very proud of that.” 

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