In the case of Rider University, no news is good news. In the past two months, Rider has made national newspapers because of deaths, racial incidents, an alleged sexual assault and an impending strike that was averted at the last minute. That is a lot to go wrong.
Indeed, the usually quiet university has seen the press flood the two campuses twice in the past six months: first, for the alcohol-related death of Gary DeVercelly in March and more recently for the alleged heroin-related death of Westminster Choir College (WCC) freshman Justin Warfield.
All this bad news has hung around the campuses like a cloud. The semester has been rife with deaths: senior Tom Galletta died of complications from a car crash; freshman Ryan Marsich died from a brain tumor; and Dr. David Rebovich died from a heart attack during class.
In addition, rumors of a strike began in September and hung over the campuses for the next month. A student reported a rape on the Lawrenceville campus. Racist graffiti was found twice in Gee Hall, and a junior posted offensive and racist comments on the Facebook wall of a Latin American Student Organization member.
“We’ve taken a beating this semester,” said Dr. Alison Thomas-Cottingham, professor of psychology. “Just when you think it’s over, something else pops up, which can really wear on students. It’s unlike any semester I’ve experienced here.”
A nuance of varying student reactions to each incident exists on both campuses. As the bad news piles up, each event seems worse because it’s preceded by a slew of earlier misfortune. With no respite from the bad luck, how well can students be holding up?
The death of Warfield affected the Princeton campus tremendously. WCC freshman Jodi Zhao, a voice performance major, said she wasn’t acquainted with Warfield, but she was still affected by his death.
“From everything that I’ve learned about him, he possessed all the talent and the artistry needed to create a successful life for him[self],” Zhao said. “We all just want him back. We promise to take better care of him if we just had one more chance.”
Many view the recent events at Rider as a horrible run of luck, but for some students, this is their senior year. Senior Ami Patel, an accounting and finance major, views what has happened as uncharacteristic of Rider.
“The majority of the people at Rider believe in diversity,” Patel said. “Yes, I think it’s tragic, but people know that’s not Rider. That one incident is not going to define Rider.”
In Thomas-Cottingham’s Race, Class and Gender course, the recent racist graffiti has been a “slap in the face,” she said.
“At first, with the Jena 6 case [a racially motivated attack], students thought, ‘Oh, it’s down South,’” she said. “But now it’s happening here. Talking about race is like trying to pull teeth. People are still very guarded. The vibe that I get is very much about not offending people.”
Also taking events in stride are students for whom this is the only college experience they’ve ever known: the freshmen.
“It’s just kids being stupid and it happens at every other school,” freshman psychology major Stephanie Santiago said. “It’s also because of [Gary dying] last year. There’s more scrutiny.”
Thomas-Cottingham said she couldn’t imagine how the freshman class must be feeling right now.
“It’s got to be incredibly difficult because you come to college with such high hopes and expectations, not just academically, but socially,” she said. “To have the first experience be one filled with such tragedy has got to be hard.”
This is the first in a two-part series. The second part of this article, which will run next week, will focus on the long-term effects and how Rider is overcoming the obstacles it has faced this semester.