Monthly Archives: April 2021

April Was the Cruelest Month

Many of us will remember where we were and what we were doing on April 16, 2007, when we learned about the unspeakable tragedy of the campus murders and subsequent suicide at Virginia Tech.

At the time, I was executive director of NASPA. I was grabbing lunch at a restaurant with the incoming president of the board of directors, Dr. Jan Walbert, vice president for student affairs at Arcadia University.  I was looking forward to a scheduled meeting with her university president in the afternoon, in which I would give her “boss” a sense of the importance and far-reaching influence of Dr. Walbert’s volunteer position with NASPA.

The tragedy at Virginia Tech altered the trajectory of Dr. Walbert’s year as president of the board of directors. Within weeks after the mass shooting, Dr. Walbert was giving testimony at a congressional hearing in response to their request for guidance on what campuses could do regarding effective emergency preparedness with the potential of increasing the safety of students and the campus community.

I say “potential” because it’s not possible to predict or prevent violence. Indeed, within the year, another tragedy would occur at Northern Illinois University. What can be done is to provide requested resources in order for mental health professionals to be as accessible as possible to the increasing number of students who need and seek help. What we were reminded of in the wake of these campus shootings is that the median age of onset for mental illness is in the range of late teens through the early 20s, with young adults aged 18-25 years having the highest prevalence of any mental illness, and this doesn’t take into account the effects of a yearlong pandemic.

In an Inside Higher Ed survey of student affairs leaders conducted by Gallup in 2020:

  • 78 percent of student affairs leaders said the number of campus visits to mental health professionals had ‘increased a lot’ in the last five years, and
  • 63 percent said the same for the number of students on prescription medicine for mental health issues.

When these leaders were asked about the issues on which they had spent a significant amount of time during the past year, 93 percent at public institutions and 96 percent at private institutions listed student mental health.

Even before the pandemic, mental health had been an increasing issue for college and university students for more than five years. When students return to campuses, their need for services may be greater than ever before, and the need will have to be met. No college or university wants to experience what Virginia Tech went through during the cruel month of April 2007.

To Be Young, Gifted, and Black

As I attended to the beautiful voices and faces of four Black Student Government presidents representing The Ohio State University, University of Minnesota, Harvard University, Purdue University, and MIT, the song, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, came to mind.

The young leaders who were presenters on the Chronicle of Higher Education webinar, “Race, Class and Student Voices,” are the embodiment and manifestation of the second line in the song: “Oh what a lovely precious dream.”

In 1970, when we first heard Nina Simone sing this song, we, as young people, already knew that we were the realization of the dream of so many who had come before us. Now, our dream was to live during a time when the reality of that dream would be recognized as ordinary for all Black people and not extraordinary for a precious few. 

Thinking of ourselves and our children as gifted and Black made us proud and unapologetic about all the ways that our Blackness set us apart. We used the power of the words “gifted and Black” to destroy the stereotypes of our intellectual inferiority, to push back against behavior that demeaned us, and to lift up the truth of our value. Hearing the finality and emphasis Miss Simone put on the word “Black” in the refrain of the song was our inoculation against the disease of racism and all its side effects.

Accepting that we were the agents of our future, we put our faith in ourselves. It was the kind of faith that propelled us to expand our imagination to include our own success as well as the happiness and success of our gifted Black children for generations to come. Hearing Miss Simone sing this song assured us that we had potential as individuals and, as a collective, we would internalize our right to be free and liberated because we were “young, gifted, and Black.”

The increase in the numbers of Black Student Government leaders throughout higher education is a continuation of the reality of that precious dream.

When the Moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter Aligns with Mars

Back then, our generation was consumed by the layperson’s minimal knowledge of astrological sun signs. Sun signs played a role in determining who would be our best friends, who was the best person to date, and who might be a good prospect for marriage. “What’s your sign?” was the question most frequently asked when young people spent any amount of time together. Instant assumptions were made about the essential character and compatibility of the person depending on their answer to that simple question.

Astrology was not only our guide for determining compatibility with others, it could also be useful when making decisions about fashion and home décor. When choosing among options, the colors associated with the sun signs of the zodiac were sometimes deciding factors.   

For example. our first house was one of ten houses on a dead-end street. In choosing to buy this house, we might have noted that it was a brown brick, like the earth for stability. For a small house, there were a lot of windows. Windows and light were something to love, but the window coverings were another story. Impressed with the wooden window blinds, we were disappointed when we realized that the dingy yellow of the blinds would not return to white even after scrubbing them with bleach and cleanser and using a considerable amount of elbow grease. Without easy alternatives, we made the bold decision to paint the blinds. But what color?  Sky blue was the choice because it was always associated with positive traits, astrologically speaking.

Our baby’s room was a sunny yellow, purported to reflect the joy and happiness of people born under the sun sign Gemini. In line with the Gemini character, the crib and chests were bold and cheerful in orange and white. The tops and sides of the chests were orange, and the drawers were white with orange pull knobs. We were so proud of our little nest and over the moon with our baby. I thought that leaning over the sides of his crib softly singing, “Good morning star shine, the earth says ‘Hello.’ You twinkle above us, we twinkle below” was the best way to start the little angel’s day.

In 1969, Good Morning Star Shine and other songs from the Broadway musical Hair were the catechisms and prayers on the lips of our generation. We were spiritually struck by, and literally infected with, the songs from the musical. Many people knew the lyrics to all the songs and, even though we lived on a shoestring, we bought the album and played it over and over again.

The song everyone recognized from Hair was Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In. The feelings evoked by the song confirmed our alignment with the universe and with humanity. During the turbulent war-torn times and political schisms of the late 1960s, all laced with violence and brutality, this song, in the opinions of many of the young, was one way to imagine all of humanity on the same page. Singing in unison with the singers on the recordings was liberating and hopeful at a time when we, as young people, felt constrained and misunderstood.

Astrology was one thing we could trust and believe in. When we didn’t always live up to our own expectations or those of others, we didn’t have to take full responsibility for our shortcomings because some things were pre-ordained according to our sun sign. According to our astrological sun signs, we all had parts that we might not boast about, but there were always the good parts that we could hold onto when we needed a boost. We could always choose to see ourselves in the best and most flattering descriptors of our sun sign. The balance in the descriptions made us whole.

Though it sometimes felt as if fate had dealt us a bad hand, we had faith that one day “when the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.”