For College Students, Individual Responsibility is Key
It’s a difficult time to be a college student learning on campus. There is a looming sense that the return to college is temporary, and each additional week that students stay on campus is an apparent victory. My university is one of the few institutions in our area to continue in-person classes. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, two schools that are relatively close in proximity to our small town of Buies Creek, moved to online classes almost immediately after beginning the semester.
In spite of the overarching thought of online classes, however, students are eager to be back on campus. My fellow students are, for the most part, obeying university guidelines. There is a shared sense of responsibility to wear masks, follow social distancing policies, and stay on campus for as long as possible.
It may sound hyperbolic, but undergoing such a unifying experience is unique to my generation. For most of our lives, my peers and I have been taught that education is an individualistic endeavor. Work hard so that you can get into college. Do well so that you can receive a scholarship. Participate in classes, gain leadership experience, and establish connections so that you can graduate and build a successful career in corporate America. Our entire perception of college is that it is a journey for the individual.
But now, the mantra is different: be smart and stay safe so that we can stay at college. Practice social distancing so that we can be safe. Wear a mask so that we don’t have to go online.
University administrators have changed the dialogue that students have grown accustomed to, and the expectation is that students will immediately accept the new mindset. For the first time in their lives, students are being asked to embrace individual responsibility for a greater purpose than themselves.
This concept — accepting responsibility to achieve something for a group — was once a prominent component of our nation’s social fabric. There are many examples of young Americans who have, through the course of our nation’s history, accepted such a mantle of responsibility.
One example that comes to mind is the story of Martin Treptow.
Treptow, a twenty-four-year-old barber from a small town in Iowa, was killed in 1918 while fighting on the Western Front. On his body, in the pocket of Treptow’s uniform, his fellow soldiers found a small diary; on the first page of the book, under the heading “My Pledge,” Treptow had written these words:
“America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”
My fellow students and I are not in a war, but we are in a battle against a pandemic that threatens to undermine the education that we desire. This is the most trying challenge that many of my peers have faced, and it forces us to recognize that staying on campus will be a student decision. If we decide to act with individual responsibility, wearing masks and following university guidelines, we will be able to stay at school. If we cannot embrace such a task, we will not be on campus for very long.
If Martin Treptow’s story sounds familiar, it is because both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan mentioned Treptow in their inaugural addresses. Reagan, speaking during his 1981 address, eloquently explained the need for individual responsibility:
“The crisis we are facing today does not require of us the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow and so many thousands of others were called upon to make. It does require, however, our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together and with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which confront us.”
Students must believe in themselves. Students must recognize their own capacity to make a difference in the future of education across the United States. It will be a long and arduous task, but we must hold one another accountable, treat others with patience, and fight cheerfully for the opportunity to receive an education on campus.
© Aaron Schnoor 2020