“It’s up to you,” college administrators say as they send students back to campus. “Take it from here,” they tell the 18- to 22-year-olds who have been cooped up for six months, fantasizing about sweaty, over-crowded rooms and getting dressed up for some place other than the grocery store. “It all depends on you.”
As our own semester begins, Kenyon students have watched other colleges begin school across the country, adding to the chaos that is COVID-19. We have heard of students repacking their bags to leave campus just days after moving in. We have watched the Snapchat stories of friends from other colleges partying without masks and partaking in the activities we wish we were stupid enough to do. And we have watched, whether it is from our childhood bedroom or a McBride single, as campuses across the country fall apart.
But what I find strange is that this failure is being placed almost entirely on students. Why have college administrations assigned so much responsibility to students for the outcome of the semester? Whether it is before the students’ arrival or after an inevitable outbreak occurs, schools across the country are saying, “It’s all in your hands,” without taking accountability for the fact that they made the choice to allow students to return to campus in the first place.
Let’s take a look at our neighbors over at Oberlin. In a video message sent to students before their arrival, Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar discusses the shortcomings of other schools and her faith in Oberlin students, or “Obies,” as she calls them. She finishes the video with a strong message, stating that if this semester is to be successful, “it will be because of how our students behave. If it’s going to be this semester, it will be because of you.”
While I think this is a good sentiment, Ambar’s message still unfairly places any potential blame onto students. If it goes well, then students may also get the credit — but, based on the precedents set by other schools who returned, there is no doubt that students are not being set up for success. Ambar’s statement only further illustrates how students are being held accountable for a risky return to campus, with stakes so high, it is nothing short of life or death.
In her message to Oberlin, Ambar also said, “We’ve been doing all of this work for you because of what you asked us to do, which is to find a way for you to return in person to Oberlin in the fall.”
After watching my mom — a college administrator herself — navigate these same difficult decisions during quarantine and work tirelessly for her students, I believe what Ambar said above to be true. While some of my peers may argue that colleges only brought students back for monetary gain, I think the incentive is much more than that: I genuinely believe that college administrators wanted to give students the chance for a normal college experience. But you don’t always have to give college students what they want. In fact, you often shouldn’t. College students may say they want to go back, but I would also guess that they don’t want to be held responsible for such a large decision. Announcing to students that you’re bringing them to campus because “this is what you asked for! This is what you wanted!” conveniently puts the blame on them. After a history of students feeling unheard by administrations, this may be the worst time for them to hear — or rather, mishear — us.
When my mom’s employer made the call to cancel in-person classes, it was clear that she felt the weight of this choice. She thought back to how crushed I was when Kenyon announced that juniors and seniors wouldn’t be returning, and felt horrible knowing her students would feel the same way. But I would remind her that, while my peers and I were devastated, the majority of us understood why we weren’t returning. We respected the choice and felt proud of Kenyon for making it.
Administrative decisions often seem deceivingly simple. I’m sure that so much has gone on behind the scenes that I will never know or understand that complicates college administrations’ choices even more. But for students, decisions also aren’t black and white. There is, of course, one version of the partying college student: a frat boy with an American flag in his dorm room who thinks Corona is just a type of beer. But there is another college student: a shy first year who is having trouble making friends and got invited to a social event, who is unsure of how else to meet people and feels pressured to take off their mask to fit in. To assume that all students are the former would be to ignore the complex social pressures that come with being a college student, especially a new one.
The president of Georgia College released a letter addressing students after the College experienced a COVID-19 outbreak — with about eight percent of the student body infected as of Aug. 31 — linked to off-campus parties and gatherings, saying, “A lot is at stake here. Your individual decisions will have a tremendous impact on our entire community. It’s up to you to keep us together.” Florida State University’s president came forward with a similar statement that read, “The university has done all it can to take necessary precautions, offer convenient on-campus testing, and put appropriate safety measures in place. Now, it’s up to you.” What is particularly troubling about that last statement is that it relieves the University of all responsibility, placing a tremendous weight on students without acknowledging the social pressures and complexities that come into play, chalking it all up to recklessness. Nor do they discuss the idea that maybe, just maybe, they shouldn’t have brought students back at all.
This is not at all to say that students do not have a responsibility to be safe. And please, students, do not take this article as an excuse to convince yourself that your actions don’t have consequences. Partying, not wearing masks and ignoring social distancing is flat-out stupid, completely inconsiderate and legitimately harms the well-being of others. Students should want to act safely, not because they would otherwise get sent home from college, but because it is better for the world.
I would never wish to condone or justify the irresponsible and reckless behavior of students. But someone chose to put all the characteristically irresponsible and reckless people together and say, “You got this.” To me, that seems more dangerous and careless than the action of any individual student.
As a college student right now, I feel betrayed. Betrayed that colleges and universities who allowed students to return are using this as an opportunity to look like the good guy, like they listened to our wishes and did us a favor, while blaming students for mistakes that could have been avoided. Everyone must do their part in keeping our communities safe, and I cannot urge Kenyon students enough to be smart and conscious of the harm their actions can cause. But college administrators cannot, in good faith, put the weight of the semester’s success on their students. To each administrator that chose to allow students to return, I leave you with one question: What did you think was going to happen?