Reflections on Penn State

I have been waiting some time for the right topic for my first blog post: something I was passionate enough about and something that I felt would be thought-provoking and would lead to a conversation. I hope that this is the first of many posts that will, if nothing else, elicit some thought and conversation.

Amidst all the controversy and the events that unfolded over the last few days, I am left with one image that I just can’t get out of my brain; Penn State students violently rioting in protest of the firing of head Football coach, Joe Paterno. The image and the sounds infuriate me. How could these students care more about their Football coach than the victims of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse, who were also victims of a system that covered up the abuse. I am probably one of the more passionate sport fans, so I understand the importance of the profound legacy of Joe Paterno and the deep school pride that these students, alumni, faculty, staff and community must have for their Nittany Lions. However, what I don’t understand is how one man, one sport, can be seemingly more important to a community than the 8 (and probably more) children who will always be haunted by the abuse they experienced. Shouldn’t the students be out protesting the abuse, protesting the cover up? Where was this passion when the story broke? Why were the students not protesting for the immediate firing of anyone involved?

Just this morning, I saw something much more powerful amidst all of the news coverage surrounding the story. Penn State Student Body President, TJ Ward addressed his peers with a speech on the steps of an administration building. He spoke out against the protest and urged his peers to remember the victims. He was eloquent and compassionate. Supporting him were several other student leaders. Watching the video footage of TJ’s address to his peers was yet another moment of realization for me about the work that we do as student affairs professionals. It is because of student leaders like him and the impact they can have on a campus community that I come to work every day. Student leaders at Penn State have also decided, instead of a rally for Saturday’s big football game, that they would hold a vigil for the victims of the abuse. Student leadership, amidst tragedy, has shown its true power. It was shown through TJ’s speech, the vigil organized by student leaders, and the professional journalism of The Daily Collegian.

Though they will never be recognized or mentioned on TV, I hope that the student affairs professionals at Penn State know that their hard work and dedication to the students of Penn State has shown through over the past few days. The work we do, though often unrecognized, is essential to a college community and is more evident than ever in times of unfortunate tragedy. Though TJ’s words and feelings were his own and the idea of the vigil was student driven, I can’t help but think of the student affairs professionals who have stood behind and beside them, supported their thoughts and ideas, and encouraged their development as both students and leaders.  I also can’t help but think of the residence life professionals, counseling center staff and the countless number of other professionals who will be hard at work restoring the community, supporting their students, and managing the aftermath of a series of such unfortunate events.

I am now left wondering what the student leaders on my campus would do in this situation.  Would they take a stance?  What would it be?  Would they answer the call to represent their peers and our campus community?  I can honestly say with conviction that they would.  The rioting, and more importantly the message that it sends, would not be tolerated.  I think their reaction, through written and spoken words, and signs of support such as a vigil, would be very much the same as Penn State.

I leave you all with this question. How would YOUR student leaders respond?

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