Becoming Order of the Gown President in a pandemic

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Staff Writer

The email came out at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 14. I was in the middle of my advising meeting with Dr. Derek Ettensohn on Zoom when my brother tried to call me on Facebook Messenger. I excused myself momentarily to check my phone. 

I had been elected president of the Order of the Gown for the academic year 2020-2021. In the middle of a global pandemic.

I decided to run for Order of the Gown President in January 2019. On a sleepless night in the Writing House, I had planned out my potential campaign. I’d even come up with a hashtag, #TheGownGoesGlobal, that I felt particularly proud of. Since my work on campus thus far, as president of the Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding (OCCU), had been project-based, centering on themes of belonging and inclusion, I saw the OG as a way to continue that work on a much grander scale.

When I won, I thought I would be happy. After all, that’s what I should have felt, especially after all the emotion I put into campaigning for the past ten days. I wanted this role. I knew I could do good things with it. I knew I was capable of fulfilling all the promises I’d made on my campaign.

I let myself get swept up in the celebratory joy that poured out of my screens. I responded with gratitude to the friends who messaged me on Instagram and posted on my Facebook Timeline. I emailed my professors with the good news, because it was good news. 

But the reality of my situation left me wanting. I was on an empty campus, alone in an empty house, the joy of my election to one of the highest offices that this University offers filtering through to me on a computer screen. I didn’t know what the decorum was for celebrating during a time of such uncertainty. I wondered if I should even be celebrating, because there was a job at hand: I would be responsible at least in part for pulling Sewanee through to the other side — whatever that may look like. 

I thought I was ready. But the more I mulled over it in the loneliness of the April days, the sadder I became. I realized that I wasn’t sure what was expected of me in this role. There were the usual things, of course, that would take place during a normal academic year: carrying the mace at Commencement and Convocation, reading out the names of the students who were getting gowned, planning and executing a program of my own devising. But this year, there wouldn’t be a Commencement. We don’t know if everyone will be back in the fall. What, then, was I supposed to do?

There was also the anxiety that came with being one of the few if not the first international student and person of color to hold arguably the most traditional student leadership role at Sewanee. I’m sure there’s a set of expectations that comes with this. I’m still trying to reconcile my very nontraditional self — as an older student, an international student, a person of color, a woman — to this very traditional role. How much of myself would I have to stow away to uphold this tradition and how much of myself can I bring to this role so that I can, as I pledged to do, move the institution forward? How can I use this platform to the best of my ability to ensure that Sewanee becomes a place where even extremely nontraditional individuals like myself can feel that they belong here?

Couple all those anxieties with a collective anxiety of a global pandemic, and you’ll have an idea of where my head was. COVID-19 has disrupted many lives in a plethora of different ways. But I seem to be suspended in the Sewanee bubble. I can’t go home to Myanmar. At this point, it looks like I’ll be in Sewanee until the day I graduate. 

Maybe that’s what my role as OG President is. Maybe I’m supposed to stand guard at these gates and hold down the fort, as it were, until our campus can fill again. Maybe my job — my honor, my privilege — is to continue cultivating the connections that we value within this community, to try and make sure that they are strong enough to last us through these strange and troubling times. 

I’ve always been a little bit of an activist in nature. I’m usually good at coming up with concrete plans and seeing them to fruition. It’s how I’ve utilized my time at Sewanee, identifying areas where we could do better and seeing that we at least try. But this pandemic has been hard on me, has been hard on all of us. Like many of us, I have struggled with motivation — not just for schoolwork when classes were in session, but also with finding meaning in the work that I have done, in the work that I want to do. 

How do you get out of bed determined to change the world when the world is, like you, suspended in mid-air? How do you find the courage and the energy to keep going when no one knows where to turn? How do you sing of hope when all your body can hold at this point is grief, grief, grief?

I write this not to tell you to despair. But I strive to live my life as honestly as I can. So this is me, as your new OG president, as your peer, as your friend, as words through a screen, being honest with you. I hope you can be honest with whoever you need to be — whether it’s your family, your friends, your mentors, or even yourself — with where you are and how you’re doing. Because at the end of the day, we’re all alone in this, but we are all alone together. This, too, shall pass. 

There are two index cards on my door. The one in orange asks, “What happens because of you?” It’s a question my internship supervisor last summer, Parvez Mohsin from the Nashville International Center for Empowerment (NICE), asked me. As a student leader on Sewanee’s campus, I’ve tried to make many things happen. 

But the other card, in a lighter yellow, simply says, “Value your illusions.” This is something Dr. Al Bardi said in our PSYC 101 class, way back in the fall of 2018, lifetimes ago. In the context of existential psychology, it means that all we, as human beings, have in the face of death — in the face of a global pandemic — are our illusions, things that give us meaning when times are tough. 

Being able to serve in this strange time as your OG president gives me meaning. It is an illusion, perhaps, in the midst of everything else that is going on, but it’s one that I value deeply. 

So value your illusions. I’ll see you on the other side.  

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