On March 10, 2020 all students living on Harvard’s campus were told to move out in the next seven days.
As a resident dean to over 350 students it was my charge to assure that each and every one of them were well-informed and well-supported to figure out next steps — anything from helping with plane tickets, storage and locating sudden alternative housing to facilitating continuation of medical treatment and protecting undocumented and international students from predatory surveillance.
The following week consisted of lines going out of my office, tearful and anxious conversations with hundreds of students and dozens of staff and campus stakeholders, lengthy zoom meetings and hourly gaslighting by our nation’s President.
And while there are extremely important differences between a pandemic and a national political crisis I still found myself relying on my experience as an NYU co-ed during 9/11. So I wrote a thing for my students. It did not have all the answers but — anyone who works in higher ed will appreciate this — it remains the most-read email I’ve ever sent to students (over 2,866 opens).
I share it here for anyone in a position of leadership be it in higher education or elsewhere.
On September 11, 2001 I was a 19 year-old sophomore at New York University. Early in the morning as I was walking to my part-time temp job in Battery Park two cars screeched to a halt to my left and an older man got out pointing at the sky.
I remember two things: how brightly blue the sky was that Tuesday morning and the too loud sound of a too close plane flying above me.
In the moment of a crisis you don't think it's a crisis, you just put one foot in front of the other. I walked back uptown to 23rd Street and 3rd Avenue where I lived in a 900 square foot double studio with my best friend, also an NYU student. Cell phones had no reception but ethernet worked. I got on AOL Instant Messenger and asked my friends online to call my family to let them know I was okay.
No one knew what to do, just that we had to leave. My roommate and I packed a bag and walked the nineteen blocks to Grand Central Station where we caught the last scheduled commuter rail to Yonkers to stay with extended family in the area. For a week I slept on my uncle’s couch watching the news and President George Bush begin his War on Terror.
I had papers due already. I never wrote them.
Four days passed and NYU gave the all-clear for students to return. In class we chain-smoked with our professors darkly laughing about how the hell we could still hold classes. My friends and I would walk to classes or clubs and pass through soldiers holding automatic rifles and handmade signs pasted on cement walls and gates with pictures begging the viewer had we seen this husband, this daughter, this best friend, this neighbor. Pleading with us to look, to see, to learn, to mourn.
It was a lot to grapple with, particularly because I was not a direct victim. I'd suffered no loss of life or loved one. And yet, I was anxious all of the time.
I still get wary when the sky is too blue.
I rely on that experience in the face of crisis. I rely on the fact that I was coming of age in a new city and a new school when the whole world as I knew it came to a halt and would never be the same. I think about being present today on the other side.
I share this with you to tell you:
Things are going to be hard.
Things are going to be confusing.
Things will be different.
You are the constant.
You will be okay. You will learn and grow from this. You will mention this when interviewing for a job and you're asked if you've ever had to lead unexpectedly in the face of a crisis. When you lose a job, a relationship, an opportunity, etc you will remember this exact moment and find comfort that you have been through the unexpected and you came out on the other side.
Home means a million different things to everyone here. For many of you going "home" might be a relief, an escape but, for others this might be a nightmare. School was my escape and I know that some of you are seeing this as the rug being pulled from under you.
You're right. It is.
There is no rug. There is only you, standing here.