Dear Liberal Arts Undergraduates:
I hope that today’s federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. finds you reflective about the state of the nation. There’s no sugarcoating the fact the spring semester begins this week amidst a time of great strife in this country. We have witnessed a siege of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.—its aftershocks continue to threaten democratic processes, prompting many of us to worry about the basic stability of U.S. civil society as Inauguration Day approaches. We remain in the throes of a global pandemic that requires us to begin the semester remotely and continues to make it difficult to find comfort with family and friends at a time when we need community most. The daily onslaught can be overwhelming at times, leaving many of us reeling from a range of emotions—confusion, fear, anxiety, anger, and even helplessness. I appreciate how heavy everything must feel right now for everyone, even if we are affected differently by unfolding events.
Amidst the turmoil, however, I spot glimmers of hope. The creation of multiple vaccines to combat the coronavirus is an encouraging development—though I won’t be removing face masks from my wardrobe anytime soon, and I expect we will not be safely returning to handshaking, hugging, and several other pre-COVID forms of casual social interaction for some time. The rising number of voices demanding an honest reckoning with the nation’s past, and a truthful engagement with its continuing legacies, make me hopeful that we can move toward meaningful social reconciliation. I know much work remains before we eventually get to where we want and need to be—we did not reach this fork in the road yesterday, and we will not find our way forward overnight—but I am hopeful in the democratic possibilities that persist in this country.
I am also hopeful that the start of the spring semester, albeit remotely, brings you some routine and “normalcy,” and reminds you that there are better times ahead. If you find yourself struggling emotionally or otherwise, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’ve said this many times, but it bears repeating—there is nothing that matters more to our college than your health and well-being, and we will make every effort to ensure that the college offers you the support and resources you need to navigate these challenging times as you successfully complete your degree.
In return, all I ask you to do is keep reading broadly, thinking deeply, taking care of yourselves, and drawing others out of harm’s way. We all have the right to be heard, but we also have the responsibility to proceed from facts and careful interpretation rather than mere opinion or personal perception. We all have the right to speak our minds, but we also have the responsibility to genuinely listen to others so we can more effectively interrogate and understand their viewpoints. We all have the right to vigorously challenge ideas that diverge from our own, but we also have the responsibility to do so without negating the humanity of the individual on the other side of the debate. We all have the right to get where we want to go in life, but we also have the responsibility to make sure we don’t get there by stepping on the backs of others. We all want the world to be a better place, but we all bear the responsibility to make that happen. These are not only enduring liberal arts principles, but as we have seen these are essential practices to maintaining the health and strength of any society that defines itself as a democracy.
A few quick reminders before I close:
- If difficult circumstances leave you feeling especially anxious or overwhelmed—or if you are aware that someone else is struggling—please do not hesitate to reach out to Counseling and Psychological Services for assistance.
- I invite you to explore and participate in any of the Penn State-sponsored events taking place virtually this week to commemorate and celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.
- Lastly, please be sure to check the college’s and University’s coronavirus websites regularly for important information and updates, including testing requirements for students before returning to campus.
I hope you have a wonderful semester, and I look forward to talking with you throughout the spring. Until the next time, be safe, be wise, and be well. Best wishes for all good things this year.
Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts
Professor of African American Studies
The Pennsylvania State University
111 Sparks Building
University Park, PA 16802