Faculty voice:

Brandon Van Der Heide: Who Spartans Become

March 12, 2020

Brandon Van Der Heide is an associate professor and director of doctoral studies in the Department of Communications. This letter to MSU students originally appeared on the College of Communication Arts and Sciences website

Dear MSU Students,

On the night of March 11, 2020, my wife (who is a faculty member in the Department of Teacher Education) and I had our brief nightly recap of the day as we often do. We usually talk about the things that made us laugh, the things that surprised us, the things that made us angry, or the things that gave us joy. But tonight, we talked about you.

You see, you have had an MSU experience that neither my wife nor I would call typical. Many of you joined us in the fall of 2016. You came to East Lansing at the end of what would become the most contentious and divisive presidential election in almost any living person’s memory. You watched — and lived — families, classrooms and friends being torn apart by heated political debate lived out from Facebook to Thanksgiving Day tables across the country. You have inhabited a world in which there is no middle ground, no safe perspective, and where moderation is simply a sign of weakness. No matter where you stood or stand on the outcome of that election, watching it and participating in it stretched thin the Spartan fabric.

And around that same time, in the fall of 2016, there was another thing happening on the banks of the Red Cedar. A group of brave women stood up and called out a sexual predator who had been hunting on this campus for 20 years. These women were particularly brave because other brave women before them had also spoken up and had been silenced, ignored, and discounted. But, these brave women spoke out. The brave women who had come before them spoke out again. And the nation listened. And the courts listened. And you listened. And because you listened, administrators and a dean and even a former president of this university are no more.

But, all of this didn’t end quickly. Your experience at MSU was altered by this. From 2016 through 2018, you lived with this drama, you watched as the media did what the media does. It painted your alma mater as a uniformly corrupt place — the corrupt who deserved it and many of those who didn’t. You waited graciously as you were indicted — because you were concerned that speaking out would in some way belittle the bravery of those women who brought a monster to justice. And so, you took this criticism on the chin. And, nevertheless, you persisted. You (always) packed the Izzone, you (mostly) came to class, and you (definitely) dealt with more in those years than many of the rest of us. Once again, the Spartan fabric was stretched to the point of nearly breaking. But break it did not.

Just when you might have thought you’d traversed the darkest days of MSU, and one of the darkest times in American history, an American president was accused of colluding with a foreign government to win the presidency — the one person who was charged with executing the law was now charged with subverting and obstructing it. Then, many of you lived through the first presidential impeachment you’ll remember. Once again, if the Thanksgiving table had calmed down by 2017, it was anything but congenial by November of 2019.

But some of you had been numbed to the political strife of the times. I can hardly blame you. I became numb, too. But then, when I needed it, you woke me up. When you became enraged about several bias incidents I had not heard of, you graciously and rightly alerted me to things I had missed. You led the way and you taught me to be a more alert, more wise, person. Some days, many days, I have become uncertain about who exactly is the professor and who exactly is the student.

Unbeknownst to most of us at the time, at the very end of 2019, a little-known disease began spreading in mainland China. And, by March 11, 2020, today, that disease had spread the world over. And, today because of that disease many of you packed up your belongings, and you said goodbye to roommates, and you attended what may well have been your last face-to-face classes, and you got in a car and you drove home to be with your people. But, you also left your people. You couldn’t make plans, you didn’t get to spend one more night out with friends, you don’t know if you’ll attend your own graduation ceremony this year — or if there will even be one to attend.

As far as college experiences go, you pretty much drew the short straw. As faculty, it’s easy for us to forget that your time here as a student comes with an expiration date. For us, there will always be another faculty meeting, another class to teach, another article to write. But, for all of you, this could have been it. The plans you made to celebrate your accomplishments here, on the banks of the Red Cedar, when the grass has again become green and the leaves have returned to the trees and the flowers are all in bloom, together with family and friends — parents and roommates and boyfriends and girlfriends all of your people in one place together, and, that experience, that celebration, could be gone in the blink of an eye.

You couldn’t be blamed for wallowing in self-pity, at least for a minute. But when my wife and I talked about you today, and we each told one another the stories of how you responded to the news that today might be the last day of your college experience, you humbled us. What we told one another were not the stories of entitled children — because that’s just not what you are. Instead, your stories were those of gracious acceptance of new online measures that you didn’t choose, but that you understood were important for something bigger than yourselves. Some of you suggested that you ought to secretly continue to come to class at our house! (Which is a heartwarming, kind thought…but no.) Some of you, very reasonably, wanted to go home, many of you international students, who want nothing more than to be safe with your families, yet you exhibited gracious understanding when we didn’t have answers to your legitimate questions.

So, this isn’t a story about how bad you had it. Far from it. This is a story about who you became. You became the kind of Spartans who will change the world. You see things that need change and rather than descending into self-pity, you address what you perceive to be the great needs of the world.

Spartans, I don’t know if I’ll see you again. I don’t yet know if you’ll have a traditional graduation ceremony when the flowers are blooming on campus in early May — though I hope you do. But I know this: You’re ready. You’re ready to become who the generations to follow — your children and grandchildren — will one day soon come to know as truly great citizens. You’re ready because you’ve demonstrated that where our leaders have failed, you have picked up the mantle and led to success. You’re hungry, you’re committed, you’re kind, you’re generous, and most of all you embody the very best of what it means to be Spartans. In some cases you’ve done that with us, in some cases you’ve done that in spite of us.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that with you folks at the helm we’re going to be just fine.