Where is my seat? A commentary on the inclusion of student voices

By Samantha Sell
Contributing Writer

The essence of Sewanee is unknown to those that have never shared in its magic–– the magic that belongs to those enrolled now, those that went here before, and those who are yet to come. The spirit of our University may be ambiguous to newcomers and the outside world. This spirit is kept alive by those that have experienced its uniquely indescribable experience and culture. The Mountain exudes a sense of comfort. 

Yet, somehow, we all are content in the ethereal experience we amass over four years. This comfort lies somewhere between the passing hello tradition and the Sewanee fog. While the intangible feeling remains, the only explanation is due in part to the unity among the students. It is felt both between the trees and in the classroom, among the students and their peers, and embodies the overall unique experience of which we are all a part.

EQB, “Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity!” Psalm 133:1—the University motto—defines the Sewanee way of life. This verse is placed prominently on the University’s EQB homepage, and is present in the lives of each student. How good and pleasant it is when students, faculty, and administration alike gather in unity and simply dwell together.

For those who have experienced this magic of Sewanee unity or those who have lived through EQB at Sewanee either now or after your departure, I hope this resonates with you in some way.

Early in October, without warning, I received a cryptic email about an unspecified violation committed by my sorority. The email was written in legal jargon and issued a cease and desist order until further notice, meaning that our organization would not have further representation on campus until it was lifted. 

Following the issuance of the cease and desist, no timeline or deadline was given, I was met with silence. Further, I was denied two requests for a meeting from the Dean of Students Office. This order was in place for four weeks, halting all organizational activity, and was absent of any explanation to me, the president of this sorority. It left my members, myself, and our plans for first semester in limbo, trying to retrace our steps in order to understand why the silent administration was targeting us. Finally, five weeks later, I was allowed to be at the table with them and I was ready to be heard, but quickly found out I was there for us to be punished instead. 

Our organization prides itself on embodying the sense of harmony that Sewanee has ingrained in us. Throughout the semester, our organization had only received positive feedback from the Sewanee Police Department and the Greek life coordinator. Creating a strong and reliable relationship with these two important facets of Sewanee, our organization was proud to be contributing to the safety of the community around us. 

Despite these accolades, we were suddenly met with a month of silence from the administration and our salient representation within the Sewanee community was compromised. When I was finally seated at the table, the roots and positive impact of our organization were overlooked. As a group involved in philanthropy, the community, and further fostering of values that Sewanee deems crucial, we were stripped of the ability to engage in any of the above. 

The duration of suppression by the administration of our 103 voices prevented us from participating in Relay for Life, Homecoming Court, and the last football game experience for the senior pledge class. The conversation at this table was focused on how we deserved this punishment, never about how we deserved to be given the benefit of the doubt.

The administration that I first met at Sewanee fostered and prepared students for challenges bigger than those on the Mountain. As I sat at the table with the current administration, they called into question the characteristics of my organization, my members, and my own values. We were automatically guilty until proven innocent. 

The administration used demeaning strategies by weaponizing the Honor Code and undermining our intellect in order to exclude us from these imperative conversations. These are the very conversations that would influence the perception of our organization by those administrators who are charged with building a unified Sewanee. The absence of our organization in these conversations left our Sewanee experience in their hands. 

As a Sewanee student, I am taught in a classroom to analyze situations, engage in discussions about tough issues, and pull up a chair if there is no room at the table. It is frustrating to me then that this inclusion and participation are not a part of the process outside of the classroom. Especially as these scenarios that mirror the real world, a world I will be entering in less than 6 months. One that involves getting in trouble, dealing with authority, and working amongst those older than me. As the institution teaches me to have a seat at the table, the administration of this institution doesn’t reserve my seat and or allow me to pull up my own.

I do not believe that it is an individual, sorority, or Greek problem exclusively; instead it is about who this institution is preparing us to be. It is not about the violations or the severity of them; instead it is about how the violations are handled. This problem with surviving as a sorority on campus, or having a voice at all, is a result of something bigger than us. It is rooted in the lack of unity and understanding between the administration and students, the basis of EQB and therefore the foundation of Sewanee.

I believe in a Sewanee that is full of all things good. Not only are we taught to have a voice, but we are taught how to be a friend, mentor, and leader. We all drive through the Sewanee fog during our four years on this Mountain, seeming to be in the dark for most of it but having small moments of clarity, moments of seeing the end of the road. 

I argue that through this fog of an experience, we learn what it means to be in a community that cultivates us to be outspoken, bold, and resilient. The administration of this school year has rewritten this version of what it means to be at Sewanee. It has instead made us struggle to fight for our place by undermining our ability to sit at their table; the students they taught to pull up a chair aren’t even given the room.  

I urge students who have felt a divide of similar nature to pull up that chair, not only for our own experiences but for students coming after us. Preserve the experience we’ve all been grateful enough to obtain by ensuring that the Sewanee of unity, beauty, and inclusivity remains far after we are gone. Our voices are an integral part of the magic at Sewanee that makes it this Mountain what it is, who it includes, and the people it creates. I will continue to pull up my chair to any table, within the domain and outside of it, just as the the Sewanee I have come to know and love taught me to, in the name of unity.

Leave a Reply