Students send letter of support to University of Virginia Class of 2021

by Sunpreet Singh | 9/19/17 2:05am

After white nationalists marched at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia last month, several Dartmouth ’21s began brainstorming a letter of solidarity for the University of Virginia Class of 2021.

The violence and polarization in Charlottesville inspired Carlos Polanco ’21 to message a GroupMe with hundreds of members of the Dartmouth Class of 2021 asking students to contribute to writing the letter. Along with Luiza Odhiambo ’21 and several other incoming Dartmouth students, Polanco published the letter on social media where it was retweeted and shared hundreds of times, he said. Polanco later uploaded a video featuring incoming first-year from various universities each presenting a message of unity and love.

When the current President of Cornell University, Martha Pollack ’79, issued a statement condemning the violence and offering words of support to the Cornell community, Polanco felt that Dartmouth’s Class of 2021 had a responsibility to send a similar message of solidarity and unity.

“It’s one thing to enter college and be anxious, afraid of the new life that you’re going to live and new things you’re going to experience, but it’s another thing to have that overshadowed by the events that were happening in Charlottesville and for us that wasn’t right,” Polanco said. “We just wanted to show exactly what this Dartmouth family is all about and it’s standing in solidarity with other people through their struggles.”

Odhiambo echoed Polanco, saying that she was anxious going from Dallas, Texas to Hanover and understands the fears associated with transitioning to college. However, she said that the letter emphasized the message that love wins over hatred, and that connected the Dartmouth Class of 2021 to the UVA Class of 2021.

The letter states, “Allow our response to this tragedy and our ability to effectively collaborate (notably, before stepping onto campus) fuel the need for togetherness.”

Rachna Shah ’21 was involved in the editing process of the letter and was initially horrified to see the events unfolding in Charlottesville.

“We view college as a transition period,” Shah said. “It’s a transition and a difficult period because you’re leaving your community behind at home for something completely new. And it’s difficult because ‘how do you feel when you’re not welcomed in a new college and people tell you they don’t want you to be in their community?’ So with creating this video and writing our open letter we wanted to create a community to show that as ’21s at Dartmouth to the ’21s at UVA that we’re here for each other, that we stand as one.”

Polanco said that some other ’21s questioned whether they should send the letter and feared what would happen if the College found out about it. Responding to their apprehensions, Polanco emphasized the need to do what is right and pushed forward with drafting the letter.

“I told them that what is right will continue to be right regardless of the circumstances,” Polanco said.

The letter started off as an online document put together by a few people and quickly grew to be over four pages with about 20 students total editing it. Polanco said that everyone initially brainstormed a lot on the document, which was later edited down to be one page.

Polanco said that when the letter was initially released, none of the students were expecting it to garner national attention from students, parents and media outlets. The original expectation was that the students and parents of UVA would receive the letter and be positively impacted by it, he said.

“I was just in amazement really the entire time because like I said, our purpose wasn’t really for it to blow up and garner so much attention,” Polanco said. “It was our way of responding to our moral conviction of needing to do something and to not stay silent. When we read the [Washington Post] article and then when we started to see how many shares the letter was getting, how many views the video was getting, that kind of put into perspective like wait a minute something big is happening here.”

Fifteen other incoming freshman classes from schools such as Columbia University, Yale University and Pomona College, among others, issued letters after the Dartmouth class sent theirs.

Odhiambo said that she thought the letter met its goals of showing solidarity and establishing that the students of UVA were not alone in facing hatred.

Polanco added that he was contacted by several people expressing thanks and appreciation after sending the letter.

“I spoke with their [UVA’s] undergraduate dean of student life and he expressed his thanks for the letter,” Polanco said. “Many of my friends who go to UVA expressed their thanks and how their class is talking about it and how much it meant to them knowing that they weren’t alone and that the other colleges were standing besides them and behind them.”

Polanco said that one of the biggest impacts of the letter was showing that Dartmouth and other schools care about social issues and must work together in ending hate and promoting diversity.

Shah said that was especially motivated to help in writing the letter because of the support she received from Dartmouth even prior to matriculation.

“At Dartmouth we found that students are constantly welcomed into the community even before we arrived on campus,” Shah said. “We received several emails and explanations about how we would be part of this greater community and so we were inspired to write the statement.”

She added that one of the priorities of the letter was to avoid creating a statement that furthered polarization and to rather focus on unity.

“We didn’t want to create something about ‘us’ versus ‘them,’” Shah said. “We wanted to create a statement that surrounded the idea of ‘we’. We wanted to write as ’21s to fellow ’21s because we ourselves understand the transition period and the excitement of going into college and the worries and the excitement that come along with that.”

The video that accompanied the letter focused on the power of diversity and was intended to be non-partisan, Shah said. She added that while she thinks there should be more civil discourse in our society rather than hateful dialogue, students should to be able to have open, yet civil conversations with students of opposing viewpoints.

“The effect of this letter and the video reinforced my belief that the words that we say and write really do have an impact,” Shah said. “Even though we hadn’t even matriculated into the College our words were still able to have an impact and that was amazing.”

Representatives from the Office of Pluralism and Leadership did not respond to requests for comment.

Shah is a member of The Dartmouth.

Correction appended (Sept. 20, 2017):

The original version of this article said that Pollack's statement was issued to the UVA class of 2021, when it was actually addressed to the Cornell community.