As a graduating Fourth Year (or Senior if you prefer), you have probably been through both the highs and lows of college. You may have experienced an A+ in a class, a failing test, a really fun hookup, a really regrettable hookup, a relationship even, but in all hopefully it has been an unforgettable ride.
Now imagine all of these classic college anecdotes, but add in a tidal wave of headlines, cameras, and tragedies in your community.
Welcome to the reality of the 2014-2018 Class at the University of Virginia (UVA).
The Class of 2018, my graduating class, has experienced so much in our four years at UVA. From Hannah Graham, to the Rolling Stone article, to Otto Warmbier, to August 11th & 12th, and the death of Heather Heyer, it has felt like one heartbreak after another.
First of all, I would like to quickly note that my heart goes out to the family and friends of Hannah, Otto, and Heather. While the entire Charlottesville community mourns these deaths, we must love and support those most impacted by these tragedies. In turn, we must also love and support each other. The rest of this piece documents my thoughts and my experiences, but does not speak for every student at UVA. We must stand together in times of great loss, but also recognize that everyone experiences trauma and tragedy differently.
First year I remember meeting Hannah at a party. The next thing I knew, her face flashed across the news. After her disappearance, one of my teammates on Ultimate Frisbee came up to me and said, “Wow, I can’t imagine being a First Year right now.”
To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure how to respond.
At this point UVA had felt like a bubble, a cocoon of young and friendly students. When I thought about it, I had never really allowed myself to move outside of this bubble. I felt ignorantly safe, even happy. Then Hannah disappeared. If that doesn’t snap you right into reality then I don’t know what will. The unanswered questions originally surrounding her disappearance and murder set a large shadow over UVA and its students.
This was my first taste of college life. For me, it was hard to stay grounded in a situation when I was still trying to settle down and grow my roots. Needless to say, as a young nervous First Year, I was scared out of my mind. I remember waking up to texts from my mom, dad, and other family members begging me to be safe and to never walk alone at night. I came to college with the hopes of freedom and independence, but had quickly learned of the dangers that came with this liberty.
Once the Rolling Stone article was published and then retracted, I was anxious that other women’s stories would be questioned, that one fake account could devalue the testimony of a sexual assault victim. I hated that a victim’s voice could be mistrusted, that this article could possibly be used as a counter argument. As headline after headline rolled in, I felt less like a student and more like a background character in a show. Walking aimlessly, not making eye contact with the cameras, not fully knowing what to do.
Flash to 2016, Otto’s detainment in North Korea. Then his death in 2017. Another vigil, more tears, tragically beautiful words shared in the UVA Amphitheatre. More cameras. More media headlines. Tortured. Dead. The fragility of life became so incredibly relevant. To be alive, what a blessing. To die, to die young, surreal. Something that Salvador Dali could have painted, you look at it and can’t exactly make sense of it. That’s how it felt to witness incomprehensible sadness and confusion. The media swarmed to Charlottesville once again, sharing our community’s stories of misfortune. Every vigil attended, every candle held, every bittersweet memory mentioned of our beloved Wahoos, never seemed to fully sink in.
Once more, we experienced a loss that was concealed by unanswered questions.
Torches on the lawn, hateful words, assault rifles, guns, neo-Nazis, white supremacists. What decade is it? Who are these people and why do they feel empowered by hate and bigotry? This was my first summer in Charlottesville, my home. A home I had begun to love, finally feeling secure. As the neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched and terrorized on August 11th, it felt as if my home had been confiscated. Their words stung like a poisonous bite, threatening women, people of color, minority groups, Jews, and many more. As a Jewish woman, the experience of watching hate march across Charlottesville was nauseating. On August 12th, my community lost Heather Heyer. A senseless death, another vigil, more tears, more cameras, and more articles. The violence that ensued is still tattooed on the downtown streets of Charlottesville. Heather’s name is memorialized on the street where she died, as well as chalk writing on the bricks and flowers and candles on the sidewalk. We are still constantly reminded of these riots and how they tore apart the safety that we have worked so hard to build and rebuild throughout these four years.
Throughout my time at UVA I have felt utterly consumed by these events as I have struggled to uncover the truth.
With Hannah and the Rolling Stone article, the questions regarding safety, truth, and freedom felt unanswered. In 2016, Otto’s detainment and death felt masked by lies and deception. Yet, come August 11th and 12th, I was tired of questioning. While the other tragedies had been layered in uncertainty, the events of August 11th and 12th were clear. These people were publicly supporting hate and bigotry.
For me, this reflection allowed me to develop my beliefs and to look out for others, whether I know them or not. To support those and love those who are hurting and allow myself to feel that hurt too. To hear others stories and share mine as well. Every class has experienced this ride differently; it is up to each one of us to speak out. Against hate, against sexual violence, against cruelty. While we continue to live, let’s never forget those who are not with us. Their lives were a part of our experience, and it’s precisely their lives that will keep us sharing our intertwined stories for generations to come.