Sosin: Generation 9/11 to Generation C

Compliance is not enough — we need your leadership.

by Anne Sosin | 7/31/20 3:00am

Days before the start of my senior year at Dartmouth, I went out for a run in my suburban Chicago hometown to celebrate my 21st birthday. Awaiting me after my run were not birthday messages celebrating my newly minted adult status, but rather news that would brand my class as part of Generation 9/11. Terrorists had just brought down the World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon. Days later, the halcyon senior fall we had long anticipated gave way to conversations about recovery efforts, military campaigns in Afghanistan and rising discrimination against Muslims. 

I’m reminded of that fall as I think about your return to Dartmouth this fall amid the devastation of a pandemic that has claimed more than half a million lives globally and upended your own. We felt both a dual desire to respond to the moment but also to escape its traumas. We returned to Hanover to take classes in Islam, debate the administration’s response to the crisis and grapple with our own responsibility to the moment. Some of my Dartmouth classmates would abandon long-held consulting or investment banking plans to enlist in military service or pursue careers in government. Others answered that call through journalism, law, medicine or education. I owe in part my current work at Dartmouth on the COVID-19 pandemic to the path set in motion during the conversations that fall. Coming into adulthood on 9/11, I felt drawn to understand the underlying conditions that give rise to violence and pursued this interest to work in human rights in Haiti and later in global health. 

Our rural campus offered a place to reflect deeply on our role in addressing the world’s troubles but also a retreat from them. Amid the turmoil, we clung to traditions, escaped to cabins for a winter retreat, debated the President’s response in poorly ventilated study rooms, packed cars for breakfast runs to local diners and gathered in crowded basements.  

Now your hope of reconvening on campus rests on the elimination of these close spaces

and the intimate conversations they enable. I’m sure that more banal questions than the realignment of the post-pandemic global order dominate your thinking in anticipation of your return. How will I eat? How will I study, shower and submit to regular testing? What remains of campus absent of athletics, performances and KAF line conversations? Is Dartmouth without a traditional D-plan, Trips, bonfire, FSPs and other traditions, still the same College on the hill? Those of you new to the College are likely asking how you will make friends at a six-foot distance and then maintain them after another three months at home. Many of you worry too, I know, about the adequacy of mental health support, learning access, your tenuous immigration status, your own vulnerability to infection and the impacts of the pandemic on your families and communities.

Campus colleagues and surrounding communities, including our Upper Valley community, also reflect concern in my conversations with them. Many, including those here that I’ve studied through my research, have experienced deep financial losses even as case numbers in our region have remained low. They desperately await the return of students and the economic relief it may bring. Yet, our communities worry too that your return will spread infection, overwhelm our health systems and shut down schools. I am frequently asked whether you, as students, will adhere to the rigid public health measures, or whether you will infect large numbers of vulnerable people across our region. 

As someone who has spent the last few months working on the pandemic locally and globally,

I need to tell you that you need to maintain public health protocols to preserve your academic experience. This virus is insidious and success against it fleeting. It will quickly take up residency in any gap in distance you close. 

My question to you here though, is a different one: how will you lead? 

If this pandemic has revealed the stark inequities that govern the health of our country and world, it has also highlighted the urgent need for a new generation of leaders. In my work in global health, I have witnessed partners in low and middle-income countries who have made enormous gains now face critical shortages of PPE, oxygen and other essential supplies. Here, in this country, we’ve seen enormous racial disparities in infection and death rates. Globally, we know that climate change is contributing to the spread of infectious disease.  We’ve seen gross failures of governance at home, alongside the erosion of an international order, impede our ability to confront these global challenges. 

How will you lead the fight against these seemingly intractable problems? How will you make common cause with those most affected by them? 

You are fatigued, I know, with months of social distancing, but I think you’re also tired of being handed the bill. Your generation has grown up in the long shadow of 9/11. Alongside the protracted conflicts that followed, you’ve also lived with the growing specter of school shootings, marathon bombings, climate change and our failure to address systemic racism. These are not tragedies of your making, and campus life may feel like a momentary reprieve from them. As someone part of a generation that has failed you in so many ways, I feel regret for the world you have inherited. But we need so much more of your energy right now. 

Please, ask questions about the conditions of your return. You have a right to a high-quality education, whether it is delivered in a classroom, a tent or on Zoom. Your input needs to be taken into account in designing the campus experience. 

But please then ask about the conditions that enabled this pandemic to happen and the world it has revealed. Debate the world you want to live in and how you will use your education to achieve it. Seek solace in each other as you reflect on the pandemic’s impact on your lives but then use this discomfort to cultivate empathy with those most affected by it.

Train your energy not on evading the social constraints the pandemic has imposed on you but rather on creatively forging the connections with those you will need to make those changes. If there’s any silver lining of this situation for me, it’s the way that this has brought me back into contact with Dartmouth friends and fellow alumni who followed similar paths.

I hope that some of you will join me in this work to advance health equity when you return to campus. More than that though, I hope you’ll displace us and our expectations for you. Generation 9/11 approached the world with an eye to reducing threats in the world we inhabited. I hope you’ll defy our risk assessment and offer a radically different vision of the world we might create.

Sosin is a member of the Class of 2002 and serves as the Global Health Initiative program director for the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. 

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