Wellesley is a college, not a safe space

By VICTORIA HILLS ’14

Co-Editor in Chief

Triggering was an abstract concept to me until about 18 months ago. I was “triggered,” or unexpectedly reminded of past trauma, by a plot twist in a movie. For some 20 minutes I sat hunched in a dark theater, shaking, sobbing, struggling to breathe. The physical effects were gentler than the emotional impact. Worse than damaged, I felt broken. Less than vulnerable, I felt shattered.

I don’t relay this story to establish some sort of authority on triggering. One person’s trauma can’t be plotted along an axis relative to another’s experiences. I want only to say that for those of you who have ever been triggered, I not only sympathize but empathize. And for those of you who have never been triggered, I would never wish it on you.

For the majority of this campus, the controversy shrouding Tony Matelli’s mostly-naked statue, “The Sleepwalker,” is anchored in differing conceptions of safe spaces and triggers. Is the statue, as Zoe Magid ’15 wrote in her petition to have “The Sleepwalker” removed from a campus roadside, “uncomfortable and potentially triggering” for some students? Absolutely. But the statue shouldn’t be moved.

Whatever the outcome of this Sleepwalker debate, I’m happy for its existence, because it’s sparked some serious thought—in myself and many of my peers—about what Wellesley is, what we want it to be and what it should be.

A fact: Wellesley is chock-full of potential triggers. I have a friend with a terrible justification for hating hugs. I once ate lunch with someone who flinched when I said, nonchalant in my ignorance, that I was so stuffed I could hurl. I know a professor who struggles with balancing curricula against the needs of students who have spoken up about triggering material.

For some students, any conversation, class, reading or meeting could include a trigger. They wake up in the morning not knowing what sorts or sources of distress they’ll have to deal with that day. For some of these students, getting out of bed is a colossal act of bravery. I have tremendous admiration for them. To those who have casually and callously dismissed triggers and triggering: shame on you.

Another fact: We can’t remove all of these students’ triggers.

I understand that no one is proposing that we start systematically draining the vast sea of potential triggers from this campus. A singular object has been identified as triggering, and I appreciate that its relocation by a mere few hundred feet would bring relief to many members of this community.

But protecting students from triggers is not the purpose of this institution. First and foremost, Wellesley College is a school. For many, thankfully, it is also a safe space. But the two identities are not mutually inclusive. As a college, Wellesley does not, cannot and should not attempt to provide a campus-wide safe space for its members.

I came to Wellesley to receive a world-class education. I expect many things of Wellesley as an institution: challenging classes, excellent professors, critical feedback on my academic performance and a diversity of opinions and people from which to learn. I do not expect Wellesley to shield me from my past personal trauma. As a community that is home to over 2,000 students, most of whom are young adults, Wellesley should provide resources to help students cope with their troubles—and it does.

With the Stone Center and myriad other support networks in place, Wellesley must make the education of its students its primary goal. Can Wellesley educate us without exposing us to “uncomfortable and potentially triggering” material? Frankly, no. When Wellesley begins second-guessing whether to display a research poster about eating disorders, the syllabus in a sociology class or the placement of a renowned artist’s work, we will have lost something vitally important and staggeringly precious: the willingness to challenge ourselves in the pursuit of knowledge.

I believe that we all need safe spaces. All of us need help, and at any moment some students need to be shielded from potential triggers more than they need an education. I say this with love and concern: if what you need most from Wellesley is a safe space, rather than an institution of higher learning, this is not where you should be.

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