Middlebury is just learning to deal with students in crisis, but it shouldn’t be

By COOPER SIEGEL

For most of us living in this unprecedented Covid-19 reality, everything feels pretty new right now. Having to wear masks in public: new. Needing to stay six feet apart from strangers as we walk around our neighborhoods: new. Being quarantined in our houses with the same few people for two months straight: VERY new. Yet, when Covid-19 struck during my senior spring at Middlebury, the feeling that hit me wasn’t so much that of “oh no, what is this new reality?” but rather one of “oh no, here we go again.”

To understand this last statement, I must first explain a little bit about myself — or more specifically, what happened to me during my junior year of college. My junior year was not the work-hard-play-hard year that most of us envision as Middlebury College students. No, it was a work-as-hard-as-you-can-when-you-have-the-energy-for-it kind of year. It was work-as-hard-as-you-can-between-panic-attacks, work-as-hard-as-you-can-between-doctor’s-appointments, work-as-hard-as-you-can-on-days-when-you-didn’t-just-have-a-seizure and, somedays, it was just don’t-work-at-all-and-instead-cry-on-the-phone-to-your-parents-because-YOU-CAN’T-DO-THIS-ANYMORE. You see, in my junior year, I struggled with my own personal crisis, with what I think of now in retrospect as my own mini-version of the Covid-19 pandemic: I had a tumor in the right temporal lobe of my brain. Though I did not know it at the time, this tumor was the reason that I was having seizures and panic attacks, and thus why I could barely keep up with school.

Now, of course, here’s where I admit that I was one of the lucky ones. I was okay. Five days after the end of my junior year, my doctors finally located the tumor, and over my summer break, I had surgery to remove it. Luckiest of all was the fact that the tumor wasn’t cancerous and that I didn’t die before I could make it to my senior year — as I had feared for so many months. By all measures, I was fine, and I returned to Middlebury College on schedule for the start of my senior year as if nothing had happened at all. But something had happened.

After coming back to school, I realized that my relationship with Middlebury had changed. I was angry, so very angry: not just at the world for having made me go through what I had to go through, but at Middlebury itself. I was angry for all the support that I didn’t receive because I didn’t know that I had the right to receive it. I was angry for all the times that people spoke on my behalf regarding what I needed, instead of listening to me when I told them what it was that I truly needed. I was angry that, even after returning to school, I was still being treated like a burden just because I had needed extra help to get to where I was, and forever having to explain to professors why it was that I was behind. And to be absolutely honest, as much as I have tried to let go of it all, I am still angry. There are a lot of ways that Middlebury failed me when I needed its support the most, and that hurt doesn’t just go away.

So why am I writing this piece? Since I am done with Middlebury now, having graduated in the spring, what is the point of revisiting all of this? I have asked myself this question for months, trying to decide whether it was even worth putting these words onto paper in the first place – after all, many of you likely have more pressing issues on your mind. But what I have realized over the last few months is that I deserved better and, more importantly, that you — the current students — all deserve better now. The outbreak of Covid-19 may be unprecedented, but colleges and universities dealing with students in crisis is not. If Middlebury is failing you now, it is not because they are learning to handle a brand-new situation for which no one has the road map; it is because they did not learn to handle such a situation when it only existed on a small scale. My college experience is proof of that fact.

In a moment of crisis, it is unreasonable to expect that college students can function at the same level as they normally would. Whether it be a parent or loved one who is working a job that compromises their own health, a sick relative or, worse yet, a deceased one, Covid-19 affects our personal lives in a myriad of ways, which, in turn, impacts our ability to perform academically.

It doesn’t matter that “you chose to come back to school in the middle of a pandemic.” When I chose to come back to school just two months after brain surgery, it was not because I had a hankering for writing some essays on 19th century novels and a yearning for creating some lesson plans; it was because, after a year of my life being completely upended, I needed to regain some sense of normalcy — however minute it was. Many of the people from whom I sought help at Middlebury understood this fact, but others did not.

Over the next year, you will meet both kinds of people — those who will stand by your side when you are struggling, and those who will pretend that your problems are no problem at all — but when you encounter those who fail to support you, I encourage you not to keep quiet like I did. Speak up. Talk to your friends, to your professors, your advisors, your counselors, your administrators. If they don’t hear you the first time, then speak up some more. You have a right to hold them accountable, and most importantly you all have a strength in numbers that I could never have even dreamed of a year ago. What you do now, the way you handle this unprecedented global pandemic, will have ripple effects not only on your own lives but on the life of every student in crisis who will come after you. I urge you: do not take “no” for an answer.

Cooper Siegel was a member of the class of 2020.