Reflecting on Tragedy
Lucas Piazza, University of Rochester
While the events that occurred this past January at the Delta Upsilon house are still extremely difficult to relive, I believe it is only through honest reflection that the fraternity and sorority community may collectively move forward. It is my sincere hope in writing this article that future crises on college campuses will be handled just as appropriately as they were at the University of Rochester, and that as fraternity and sorority advisors, you will extend your full support to your students at all times just as our advocates did. Thank you all for your support and dedication to fraternity and sorority members.
Reflecting on Tragedy
The fatal stabbing of Jeffrey Bordeaux, Jr., a college junior and a peer of mine, on a snowy January night attained national news coverage. Overnight, one student’s life was taken, another was completely altered, and students and staff were left mourning, questioning, blaming, and disbelieving. Just days before, I attended Delta Upsilon’s Winter Educational Conference in Indiana and listened to the fraternity’s policies and rules at great length. I remember thinking how unnecessary it seemed that we learned about such extreme loss prevention scenarios, almost chuckling because it certainly would never happen at the University of Rochester. In a blink of an eye, those scenarios became my chapter’s reality, and it became all too real.
I believe it is an innate human response to unite and mourn in the wake of a tragedy, and I applaud the university for their immediate reaction. I would recommend that other universities emulate Rochester’s model. Hours after police left the scene, we welcomed University President Joel Seligman, Dean of Students Matthew Burns, and Director of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs Monica Miranda Smalls into our fraternity house. It was not a joyful welcome in any regard, but rather one full of pain and support. While many of our questions were still unanswered, one of the most comforting feelings was the strong support extended by the administration to our brotherhood. Investigators had not yet released whether my fraternity was responsible for Jeffrey’s death at that time, but they understood that we were in pain and they assumed nothing. Accompanying them was a team of campus counselors who made themselves available for extended hours to any student seeking comfort. This intimate coming together of the chapter and the university administration was recreated for the entire college community later that evening as we gathered at a vigil in our campus chapel to reflect on the tragedy. Nightfall came, marking the end of a long day, but the pain continued to linger in all of us.
In the wake of this tragedy, one of the most challenging tasks was striking a balance between sensitivity to the event and the desire and necessity to move forward. Normally, as busy college students, our survival method is to bunker down in the library and avoid the outside world. Given the catastrophe of this particular event, it was difficult to differentiate school from internal thoughts, but many members of the chapter needed to find closure to excel academically and retain some sense of normalcy. Some peers looked with disdain as days later Delta Upsilon held our first open recruitment event of the spring semester, which is traditionally our most active recruitment period. Preparing the brotherhood on how to address the inevitable questions we would get regarding Jeffrey’s death and our involvement, or lack thereof, was incredibly important to create consistency and transparency. All members were encouraged to discuss their feelings openly and to give truthful answers to potential associate members. The executive director of our fraternity flew to Rochester prior to this event to assist. Recruitment proved successful, and my chapter rose above the challenge, extending bids to, and welcoming into our chapter, the largest associate member class in our history. This accomplishment greatly uplifted our spirits and brought a fresh and energized perspective into the chapter after a dreary winter.
I seldom dwell on the past because it still conjures sorrow and heartache. However, with the beginning of a new academic year and more than 20 new brothers needing to integrate fully into the fraternity, it is important to continue to reflect. That night in January sent shockwaves through our university and resulted in the president releasing an extensive report with many recommendations for change. The new requirement for a graduate housing director was the most impactful on the fraternity community. We are quickly adjusting to the changes. I am more optimistic about the future of my fraternity than ever before. If we could overcome devastation, there is not much we cannot do. I certainly would have preferred never to have a student’s life cut short, but Jeffrey Bordeaux, Jr. did not die in vain. To ensure this, I would like to leave you with some of the final lessons we have learned from this entire experience:
- If you do not have a close relationship with a specific fraternity or sorority on your campus, do not wait until a crisis emerges to get to know that chapter. Delta Upsilon greatly relied on the strength and support of our advisors when we were at our lowest point, and we forged a link with administrators that will remain strong. From personal experience, it is my best guess that many of the chapters who choose not to discuss events with their fraternity/sorority advisor simply do not understand the advisor’s job. By establishing clear and open lines of communication now, the advisor can be a more successful advocate.
- In any crisis situation, do not assume guilt or innocence—just offer support. Allowing the investigators to do their job and continuing to be supportive as an advisor will comfort and aid the chapter a great deal.
- Do not underestimate the ability of a group to rebound from tragedy. Find ways to highlight your students’ achievements and their successes. In the wake of this specific event, our advisors assisted us in our rebuilding and the cleansing of our chapter’s image by helping us find ways to be successful and disseminate that message to the community. This summer at Delta Upsilon’s Leadership Institute, my chapter was recognized as a top sweepstakes finalist for our Chapter Excellence Plan. This demonstrated that despite disaster, a chapter can perform well and excel in its responsibilities. It may require assistance from advisors, but taking even small, personal steps to help a chapter in crisis can completely change your relationship with the members.
- Understand all people mourn in different ways. Allowing a chapter to move on at their own pace may yield the best results, whether that is an immediate return to normalcy or a longer process. Continue to ensure that individuals remain sensitive and take actions to fully comprehend their situation.