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Palko POV: From Challenges to Choices

Reader, I corded some of our graduating students a few weeks ago.

As I type that sentence, I have to sit for a moment to absorb the feelings the memory prompts. I’m a sympathetic crier, as Gabriella Schmidt termed it during our virtual celebration of our graduates. Like yawns or sneezes, if you cry, my eyes well up.

In March, as vaccination plans were proceeding, the Women’s Center staff started making tentative plans to host a “pick-up” day for our graduating students, a day when they would be able to come in small groups to pick up their cords and gifts from us in advance of the virtual celebration that we would hold on the Friday of Finals Weekend. As vaccination rates rose, infection numbers fell, and restrictions were lifted, we realized that we could welcome all of our Bigs at one time and all of our interns at a second one. Thursday morning, we assembled on the porch of the Women’s Center, ready to distribute cords.

Tears welled in my eyes as the first student climbed the steps. Looking back now, the reflections I shared during our virtual celebration still perfectly encapsulates the moment’s impact:

Yesterday, I had the great joy of welcoming so many of you to the Women’s Center to pick up your cords and gifts. Some of you had never been to the building before – and yet you dedicated yourselves to our mission this year. Some of you left last March for Spring Break, dreaming of the coffee and snacks that were to have been here to fuel the end of your semester – and yesterday was the first time you returned to the building, 14 months later.

This was not the end to your UVA undergraduate years that any of us looked forward to when you interviewed for your YWLP/MLP assignment or Women's Center internship. But we have witnessed with pride the strength, resiliency, and commitment that you all have shown in the past three semesters. We don’t always get to select the challenges that we’ll face or pick the lessons we’ll learn from them. But you all have met the challenge, and, in the process, you’ve inspired us.

In the moment of gently placing our cord around the Bigs’ and interns’ necks, I felt the losses of the past fifteen months at a profoundly wordless level.

We are starting now to make plans to transition all of our operations back into the building in preparation for students’ arrival in August. This will be a fall unlike no other in the history of the Women’s Center (and I dare say, no other in UVA’s history): when the fall semester begins, 75% of the students arriving for the academic year will have never completed a full year on Grounds. Only the rising 4th years have experienced an uninterrupted year at UVA. Milestones of accomplishments and growth have been missed or radically altered. Many in our community are grappling with feelings of burnout. We know there will be challenges as we collectively and individually process the traumas we have experienced. Even as we move towards in-person operations at UVA, we are keenly aware that the virus continues to burn unevenly across the globe. Although the situation here feels cautiously better, the world we live in is a really small one: the fact that the situation is not better everywhere else matters to us, too.

But there are opportunities ahead, too. At the Women’s Center, we are eager to welcome our incoming cohort of interns and Bigs, ready to support them in their professional development and their work to make their world a more just, equitable, and welcoming world. We see the possibilities that lie in the very fact that we will need to introduce ourselves and our services to the half of the student population who don’t know us yet.

As we take this summer to practice self-care and restore ourselves after the past year and a half, we are also looking ahead and thinking about how to create a new “normal,” rather than attempting to just slip back into the old way of operating. As your world opens up and shifts again, I encourage you to do the same. It feels like a lifetime ago that I wrote these words:

Poet, activist, and transformational leader Sonya Renee Taylor, who founded The Body is Not An Apology, recently offered this inspiration for a social justice-informed global transformation:

"We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, My friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.

What if this new schedule we are designing for ourselves right now is the pattern for a new, more comfortable garment, one that meets everyone’s needs

Now is the time to put into action reflections you have been ruminating on during the pandemic. At the Women’s Center, as we prepare for the fall, we’re making administrative shifts small (like moving our all-staff meetings to a different day of the week that’s better for our workflow) and significant (like thinking through what our optimal hours of operation are and how spaces are best used throughout the building). How do we best meet the needs of the students who engage with us so that they, in turn, can make the most of their UVA years and be the agents of change our world needs? As I told our graduates last month, “We don’t always get to select the challenges that we’ll face or pick the lessons we’ll learn from them.” But we do get to choose how we respond to these challenges, and how we incorporate the lessons into our daily practices.

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