With a national eye on universities, three students with different backgrounds and conflicting perspectives all try and make their campus a better place.
By Eli Fosl
Morgan Grant, Andreas Elterich and Roquel Crutcher have more than just a campus in common. They were all drawn to American University for its political activism. They’re all 20 years old. All three love dystopian fiction. All three struggle to find time for political work among their harrowing class schedules.
As these students approach the end of their third year in college, each has sculpted their own role in trying to make their campus a better place for everyone. Each, however, holds quite different beliefs on what that might mean.
Though they share many qualities, the differences in ideology between Morgan, Roquel, and Andreas have been placed under an academic microscope as the national lens has focused more and more attention on collegiate discourse over safe spaces, trigger warnings, and freedom of speech.
But in their definitions of what free speech or a safer space means, all share a similar goal: a chance to be heard and a right to avoid being silenced.
Morgan Grant was born right outside of D.C. in Silver Spring, Maryland. She was raised Jewish — though she said she’s now an atheist. She is white, and comes from what she called a financially privileged background. She is a justice and law major with a minor in psychology and an obsession with “The Sims” as an escape from stress.
“I like to imagine life is happening in a smooth way, not the way mine is happening,” she said.
When she was 16, Morgan was the victim of a sexual assault that left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, for which she is medicated, and other problems with mental health.
That experience, and the mental illnesses that followed, have coded Morgan’s experience as one of 7,000 undergraduates at AU. She has been regularly involved with Students Against Sexual Violence, though she now has stepped back from activism to give herself more room to breathe.
Sometimes, Morgan wakes from a night of terrors — or flashbacks– that can make any educational experience in the classroom more than difficult, especially when topics of assault come up in discussion.
“I’m sitting in the back of the room and my mind is just racing,” Morgan said of class.. “It can look like disengagement. It can look like unwillingness to work. It can look like laziness.”
But in some classrooms, Morgan said she’s been able to regain her footing because her professors have begun to incorporate trigger warnings.
In its simplest form, a trigger warning is a brief heads-up before presentation of material that could lead to a mental health episode or extreme discomfort. Most commonly, the warnings are used for sexual violence, racial violence, pornographic or gory imagery, and suicide. It’s a lot like a rating on a video game.
For Morgan, trigger warnings are invaluable — the difference between her engaging with education or being blindsided by content that reminds her of something that she said has no place in the classroom.
“Trauma doesn’t need to be a part of education,” she said.
At the age of 16 Andreas Elterich was finding his own political footing in his hometown of Newark, Delaware. He had just taken his first government and politics class and was getting involved in his high school’s model United Nations.
Andreas doesn’t talk much about his identity (white, male, raised Protestant but now secular). He said it doesn’t play much of a part in his beliefs. His family — which he called low-income — and his upbringing had little effect on his budding political views.
Andreas is a libertarian: a political affiliation not so popular at AU, he’s quick to point out. He is the vice president of AU Students for Liberty, the vice president of College Youth and Government, and also an executive board member with the AU Beekeeping Society.
In Andreas’s room, the likes of Ayn Rand, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls decorate his torrentially overflowing bookshelf. Buttons pinned to a bulletin board display slogans such as “don’t tread on anyone,” or “end the drug war.” A few say “social justice warrior proud.”
“Those are ironic,” he explained.
Andreas is largely self-taught in terms of politics, though at AU he has passionately studied economics and political science.
At AU, Andreas suddenly found himself surrounded by people with much less in common in terms of ideology. He said he had to develop some “thick skin,” and get used to being around students with drastically different opinions than his own, though it doesn’t bother him much.
Despite that schism of beliefs between him and his peers, Andreas is social, to say the least. Around campus, he’s swarmed by greetings and high fives.
“I don’t try and be super outward as a libertarian,” he said. “But if someone asks me about it I’ll tell them: these are my opinions, and they aren’t necessarily and better than yours.”
Campus living had an even more drastic effect on Roquel Crutcher, who grew up in a — she hesitates to say “conservative”– family in Memphis.
“Southern, black, and Christian, if you know what that means,” she quipped.
But college led Roquel to question everything –really everything, she said– that she’d been raised to believe.
It was around this time that Roquel began to understand more about the stigmas and oppression she faced as a black woman.
In February of 2014, during Roquel’s second semester of college, Michael David Dunn faced the first conviction of what would become a long and widely-followed legal battle: Three counts of second-degree murder for firing into a vehicle and killing Jordan Davis, a black teenager whose loud music had allegedly prompted the shots.
Roquel points to this moment as the beginning of her attention to racial justice. Now, she is president of the AU NAACP, a member of The Darkening at AU, a resident assistant on campus, a financial advisor for the law school, and a third-year senior, graduating this month with a job already lined up.
It’s a hefty load, but Roquel said that as a black woman in her environment, she can’t be mediocre.
In a word, Roquel has found her experience at AU to be frustrating. More often than not, she said her experiences are brushed off.
Roquel said she had been told, both by some teachers and students, that the classroom is not the place to discuss race.
“Unfortunately, I’m black everywhere,” she responded. “I can’t just take my skin off and go to class.”
Everywhere she goes, Roquel said, being black is the first thing on her mind. Choosing to put on a hoodie isn’t just as simple as looking at the weather. She said she has to constantly be aware of how others will perceive her, and it’s exhausting.
For Roquel, it’s not just about being comfortable. She said it can be about life or death –black students at AU as well as Howard University in D.C. have received racist death threats.
“I pay just like everybody else pays,” she said. “If my classmate is able to go to sleep without worrying if a professor is uncomfortable with them or not, I should be able to feel the same.”
One campus, bringing them together
Andreas, Morgan, and Roquel all have different answers to the question of the biggest issues facing their campus. For Morgan, it’s accessibility of mental health and sexual assault resources. For Andreas, it’s prioritizing teaching over research for professors. For Roquel, a revised general education program with a diversity and inclusion requirement.
But still, they share many passions. Roquel and Morgan are both dancers –nationally competitive too– though Morgan moved on skating rinks rather than gymnasiums. Morgan and Andreas both adore alternative rock, each lists 21 Pilots as a favorite band. Andreas and Roquel both love hip-hop –Roquel loves J. Cole and trap from the South while Andreas admires Kendrick Lamar and Eminem.
Among these three students, the pure complexity of what a safer campus for everyone would look like already comes to light.
Andreas is not against trigger warnings, but he worries anything “mandatory” will get the university into sticky situations and suggests a case-by-case approach. Morgan insists that approach will put pressure on victims, forcing them to disclose their trauma and making the classroom an insufferable place. Roquel doesn’t understand why trigger warnings are even a topic of debate because she thinks it is as simple as “being a decent human being.” But she also argues that without a mandated diversity requirement in curriculum, students will lack the historical perspective necessary to fairly share a campus with others from different backgrounds.
“Safety and free speech aren’t mutually exclusive,” Andreas said. “You have to get people to have discourse. If you outlaw what they’re saying, they keep it in their heads without rebuttal.”
“Here’s where I will side with free speech,” Morgan said, raising her voice to be heard over the clamor of the campus Starbucks. “When students are scared to voice problematic opinions, they can’t learn. What we need is to create a classroom culture that allows for controversial or problematic opinions with check and balances from the professor.”
None of the three students think there has been enough conversation about these issues. Each has something to say, and each is concerned that some voices will be shut out.
“This university needs to sit down and figure out how the hell they can get all these students together,” Roquel said with a sigh, “to understand different life experiences and what that means for being at a university and being with each other.”