Holding on to hope amongst the chaos

College has been chaotic. Over the last four years, I have studied four completely unrelated fields and engaged in pursuits unconnected to any of them. As with most other students, I grew, learned, made friends and enemies, had countless absurd experiences and came to understand more about myself.

And yet, when I look through this chaos, two events that bookended my freshman year stick out far above the rest.

The first occurred after I received a fraternity bid following a party shortly after arriving on campus. Once the excitement within the house died down, an inebriated active put his arm around me and said, “So John, I have to ask, what do you think about n-----?”

The question, so casually posed to me, ended my attempts at joining a Greek organization that year and slammed me with a reality present at this university to which I wasn’t exposed in a Birmingham suburb high school: racism is socially popular among many students, and segregation is common within the University’s influential Greek organizations. This reality would loom over my college experience.

I witnessed a University administration that consistently followed the path of least resistance by pawning off the responsibility of this massive problem on students, arguing that change should be “student-led” and encouraging “dialogue” that was devoid of action.

I witnessed a student body that was unable to gain the traction for change, as discussions tended to repeat themselves without progress in a group that replaces itself every four years.

I witnessed an influential system of alumni sack a University president who attempted to pursue change in the system, revealing to me why caring administrators with the best interest of students at heart were unable to act in the face of injustice.

Finally, I witnessed a national media storm that forced the administration to take action, at an extreme cost to the reputation of the University and every student who attends it.

Neither the cycle of complacency or the painful ending lent me much hope for the future of my state. Student leaders in a position to advocate for change, be it Greek councils or the SGA, were nowhere to be found, even months after integration. Privately, many were opposed to the very idea of integration.

The problems at the Capstone are real, and the path forward is full of yes-men, cowards and bigots. It is easy to become depressed within this environment. Many of my friends have. Still, I was fortunate enough to have a second experience at the end of my freshman year that gave me hope: the University community’s response to the April 27, 2011, tornado.

It was during one of the most trying times for the state that I saw students unite across all lines to empower their community and produce genuinely awesome results. Thousands of meals were made, tens of thousands of man-hours were dedicated to cleaning up debris, and leaders emerged from non-traditional places.

Further, structures for ensuring that future generations of students could build on that service were established, guaranteeing that the transient nature of the student body would not inhibit progress. As the news cameras faded away and the compassionate energy that drove nationwide assistance turned elsewhere, it was still common to see students out in Holt, Alberta and other affected communities.

This response fueled a sense of hope throughout my college experience. It gave me hope that the same talent in this generation who responded to the tornado will stay in Alabama, that even when the traditional sources of power in this state refuse to take action, others will rise to the challenge. It gave me hope that in spite of its faults, my state will persevere, as it always has.

Although I could never have predicted the path that my chaotic college career has taken me, I am extremely glad for it. Its challenges have strengthened my resolve, developed me into a fighter and compelled me to enter public service.

I am extremely grateful for the professors, administrators and peers who called me a friend and mentee, the opportunities for leadership and service I have experienced as a student, and the realistic perspective this campus has given me about my state.

Most importantly, however, I am indebted to The University of Alabama for giving me hope in my state’s future.

Thank you.

John Brinkerhoff was the Opinion Editor for The Crimson White.

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