Seeing the IU spirit in trying times

As wonderful a time of year as it is here in Bloomington — as the leaves begin to change, reminding us just how stunningly beautiful a campus we have — it would be difficult to describe the start to this academic year as anything but trying.

Too many difficult and tragic events have befallen our bucolic campus these past several weeks, immersing us in collective grief, disappointment and sadness, and sometimes leaving us without words to comfort those individuals who’ve been affected the most by actions and activities that are almost incomprehensible. Indeed, there is simply nothing worse than losing a member of the IU community, especially someone who is so young, loved and full of potential.

A banner flying as part of a "banner up" campaign, started by the Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault group at IU Bloomington.

A banner flying as part of a “banner up” campaign, started by the Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault group at IU Bloomington.

The details of these occurrences have been widely reported, discussed and analyzed, and much of the chatter has taken place across social media, where the age-old journalistic debate over the right to know vs. the right to privacy is being played out in real time. It’s no secret that we live in a time when we are more aware of what’s happening around us than ever before, which — when terrible things happen and details aren’t always immediately available — can be confusing and scary.

When the worst happens, we often focus on the worst, which is understandable and often necessary in the healing process. By no means do I want to misrepresent the start of this semester, which has been really, really tough on all of us. But many of us who call IU home continue to be heartened by the good work being done all across campus, much of it by our student body, to make ours a safer, more respectful and more caring environment.

On Tuesday, our campus released the findings of our first-ever climate survey on sexual assault. The results, to borrow from IU President Michael A. McRobbie, were “sobering” and clearly illustrate the need to focus greater attention on a major problem affecting all college and university campuses, as well as larger society.

Within a serious issue, however, there is reason for optimism. As the survey indicated, nearly 95 percent of undergraduate students have participated in some sort of educational or training activity that deals with sexual assault or gender-related issues, and about half of all student respondents on campus think they can personally make a difference in addressing the issue of sexual misconduct.

Through student-led programs such as Culture of Care, members of the IU community are calling attention to areas such as sexual well-being, drug and alcohol awareness, mental health and respect, as well as stressing the importance of bystander intervention.

As I write this, in fact, IU fraternity Sigma Chi is hosting an event called “Hoosiers Fighting Sexual Assault.” Featured speakers from the campus organizations Culture of Care, Safe Sisters and Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault are talking about sexual assault prevention and bystander intervention. The MARS group, made up of more than 300 male students who are part of a number of different Interfraternity Council¬†chapters, recently started a “banner up” campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault and violence on campus. As part of the campaign, large red banners are now being displayed at fraternity houses all across campus with messages supporting the campus’ sexual assault services.

And on Saturday, several IU students will participate in a statewide “It’s On Us: Student Leaders” conference at the IUPUI campus, where they will learn about different sexual violence prevention efforts and connect with other college students to help end campus sexual assault.

Increasingly, IU staff members are working to proactively address the challenges that our students are facing. To this end, the IU Health Center’s Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, continues to work with thousands of IU Bloomington students each year on problems they are facing. And over the past three years, CAPS has grown its Crimson CORPS, a group of specially trained students who are actively engaged in promoting awareness of mental health issues.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to a group of School of Global and International Studies students on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to a group of School of Global and International Studies students on Oct. 15, 2015.

Just last week, the Bloomington campus was buzzing with pride over the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to celebrate the opening of a new building for IU’s School of Global and International Studies. This event was historic for a number of reasons, not the least of which was how well it reflected upon our talented students and how actively engaged so many of them are in making the world a better place.

Highlighting these activities and efforts is not meant to dismiss the anger, hurt, uneasiness and sorrow we’ve all felt far too often this fall. Certainly it can’t reverse awful events that have already taken place, and it’s not meant to suggest we can’t take to cyberspace to complain — even if I wish sometimes that we all would take a second to think before tweeting and posting and remember that words, even 140 characters’ worth, have an impact, both on the victims of unfortunate incidents and those students, faculty, staff and other community members who are doing their best to help.

Admittedly, I sometimes worry that even the most constructive dialogue around difficult events will detract deserved attention from the abundance of good work being done across a campus of more than 40,000 students and, even worse, discourage people from continuing to fight the good fight. But I’ve also met enough of those people over my dozen-plus years working for IU Bloomington that I know that Hoosiers aren’t easily moved off the mission at hand. It’s clich√© to say, I know, but trying times often bring out the best in people. Here in Bloomington, it’s when the IU spirit shines brightest.

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