Last night 500 people attended what turned out to be a memorial vigil for Trevor Boehm, a first year student at Northwestern who had been missing for the last two weeks. Trevor’s body was found in Lake Michigan.

Sadly, students die at Northwestern every year, and as a Campus Rabbi I regularly attend the vigils and memorials that follow. But never have I seen so many people attend a ceremony like this. Perhaps it was because his picture had been pasted around campus on signs that said “Missing,” or because students had followed his disappearance in the campus newspaper. But it was also clearly because of who Trevor was. As indicated in the stories told by friends and acquaintances, this was an effervescent, loving, eccentric-in-an-endearing-way person. Many will miss him.

As I sat through the vigil and listened to the stories, I kept thinking of how tragic it is that we have to wait until someone has died in order to say all these wonderful things about them. In my own work, one of the most powerful elements of my conversations with students is when I tell them how great they are. It’s an old tool from community organizing, which is also central to mentorship: You ask questions to elicit a person’s story, you reflect back their strengths, and you outline a number of possible futures for them. So often our conversations lead to criticism, or stay on a surface level. When you reflect back someone’s strengths, it is a powerful moment.

I’m sure Trevor had his demons. From the stories I heard, he was constantly trying to improve himself, reading Dale Carnegie and the like. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience thinking, “I wish he could hear how much he is loved.” 

How can we create a culture in which people hear their eulogies before they die? This has to be a project of our colleges and universities. Not with an eye toward narcissism, but with the goal of honoring and supporting every student, every image of God, in our care.

An additional note: In the wonderful closing prayer offered by Assistant Chaplain Erica Brown, she referred to Trevor as “our son, our brother, our friend.” Strikingly missing from her list of relationships was “our student.” And strikingly missing from the speakers at the vigil last night was a faculty representative. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps it’s because the Chaplain’s office and the Counseling office, which coordinated the event, are part of the Division of Student Affairs.

But on the same day as this vigil, the former University Provost, Larry Dumas, passed away after a long fight with cancer, and the President of the University sent out a message to the entire university community. At his memorial service, we will rightly refer to Prof. Dumas as “our father, our brother, our colleague, our friend, our teacher.” If the university is to be a whole community, it must recognize that students and teachers exist in a braided relationship that forms the heart of a community of learning. We do not exist in isolation one from another, student from teacher, anthropologist from engineer, student affairs from development. We are all here together, and we must all support and value one another.

Advertisements