Nick Gawlik’s Story

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“I have a car on campus. Mhmm – I should still be able to make it.  Yeah, let me check and I will call you right back.”

This was my groggy response to a 6:30AM phone call on Friday, April 19th from an employer at an institution where I was supposed to have an interview and give a presentation to later that morning.  I began reading through a barrage of texts and e-mails and received another phone call informing me that the campus was on lockdown.  I realized that I suddenly had 556 first-year students to help.  Within three minutes, I had to call to reschedule that interview, and that is when it dawned on me that I was about to have a very, very long day.

It is interesting how drastically priorities change when there is a crisis on one’s hands, especially in higher education.  Typically, my Friday morning priorities include showering, eating, and drinking a cup of tea while watching SportsCenter’s Not-Top 10 segment. As students were beginning to awake from another late night of studying, I was already in a completely different mode, assessing which Resident Assistants were present in the community, what the up-to-date information was concerning the last-known whereabouts of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and what kinds of institutional protocols were being put into place at the time.  It was a new test for my ability to coordinate efforts to inform RAs (who would subsequently inform residents) about the lockdown and what we should do to keep the community calm.  Since I had just presented on the importance of student engagement, I decided that even in a time of crisis an active engagement approach would be best towards this goal.

For my part, I spent almost 14 straight hours in the building office at the main entrance, fielding countless phone calls, talking with many students, sending emails as updates regarding the lockdown and access to food were being released, and making sure signs were up informing residents of what was going on.  It did not occur to me to ask myself how I was doing, or to eat, or to allow myself to be actively engaged by the steady stream of sensationalized (and uninformative) reporting from CNN.  Having had some time to reflect on the situation, I have realized that I have either turned into (1) a cynical cold professional, or (2) a professional providing warm optimism which, after a few hours, left me emotionally drained and exhausted on the inside.  Although everything turned out well, I have begun to notice that most student affairs professionals have this uncanny ability or energy to provide seemingly unlimited support for students in times of need while on the inside sheer exhaustion can lead to detrimental effects in other parts of one’s daily life. I am not referring to my inability to watch jet-skiing squirrels that morning, but rather about my newfound lack of energy in the days that followed in anything that was not student-related.  While we may gain a lot of fulfillment from what we do, I can with near-certainty say that I have not been in a deeper sleep as the students were “celebrating” Tsarnaev’s capture. Which brings me to…

The Aftermath

By having some more time to reflect and read Rev. Michael Rogers’ (S.J.) piece, Dear Dzhokhar, I Can’t Hate You, I have developed my own unique perspective on the events following the end of the lockdown and the capture of Tsarnaev.  The evening of Friday, April 19th turned from a day of fear into a sorry excuse for a night of drunken, brazen displays of celebration and ostentatious patriotism.  The night rivaled that of the capture of Osama Bin Laden, a man who terrorized the entire planet and was responsible for helping murder thousands and who eluded capture for a decade.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not only an alleged terrorist, but he is also a human, a student, and an individual who may be dealing with the same mental health issues that are so familiar to all of us.  How our students respond to the aftermath of such a crisis is almost always unpredictable – perhaps there is a component of “release” that students needed after being locked in for most of the day; maybe students need to counter their fear of terrorism with an overabundance of joy, and this is their mechanism to cope.

Either way, I personally find it difficult to be overjoyed in such a situation.  While the issue is especially sensitive in Boston, we cannot forget that there is more to Dzhokhar and he could have been, and was, one of our students.  Holistic student development practices should be, in essence, holistic in their nature, including their participants.  If we only direct these efforts towards our most vocal or visible students, we risk bringing only further imbalance to an already-lopsided system of American higher education.

At this time, I would argue that Dzhokhar needs holistic development more than ever, while our students who rejoice over his capture similarly need to comprehend the larger, holistic puzzle.  Hatred or misunderstanding of the Chechen conflict and people, rejoicing over the capture of a 19-year old student, and rambunctious partying is what I saw. As educators, the next time around we should hope to see a student response that is informed, unbiased and multiculturally-understanding, and praying for the soul and development of the one who needs it most. I end then, with a quote from one of America’s greatest authors, Samuel Clemens, who puts it this way:

But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one, the one sinner among us all who had the highest and clearest right to every Christian’s daily and nightly prayers, for the plain and unassailable reason that his was the first and greatest need, he being among sinners the supremest?
– Mark Twain’s Autobiography

Nick Gawlik was a Master’s candidate in the Boston College Higher Education program and a Graduate Assistant in residence life and student conduct at Boston College at the time of the Boston Marathon tragedy.  The author’s views are their own and do not represent those of any institution, entity or individual.  You can reach out to Nick directly via email.  Please feel free to share this on your social network of choice using the link icons below.  We also welcome you to share your reactions and stories in the comments section below so we may all benefit from your thoughts and wisdom. 

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