Being a student president is hard. It’s even harder when your term in office has been rife with death, abductions and a national news article portraying your school as “UVRape.” Jalen Ross entered office last March thinking he would be able to help solve student problems, but he had no idea just what that would entail. I sat down with Jalen to get his thoughts on the past year, and his ideas of things to come.
“It has not been fun,” Ross says. He said that when he was elected, he hoped to take things week by week, solving the problems students faced as they arose. “We’re doing our best work when we’re focusing on what everyone is upset about and fixing it,” he said.
The University of Virginia has suffered more traumatic events in the past semester than most students experience over the course of four years.
When sophomore Hannah Graham went missing from the downtown mall in September, her case dominated campus conversation. Could something like this really happen in Charlottesville? As the days went by, hope of Graham’s return began to wane.
Ross was in charge of planning a vigil for Graham while she was still missing. While he anticipated around 2,000 attendees, an estimated 5,000 showed up. “I remember turning around and being awe struck by the image of thousands of people coming together during this crisis,” Ross said. He said he likes to think that the lead suspect in the case, Jesse Matthews, was in part found because the vigil helped the story receive wide coverage.
As the community tried to heal when Graham’s body was found five weeks after she disappeared, students learned of the death of sophomore engineering student Connor Cormier. Student Council again took the initiative and hosted a computer programming competition in his honor. Ross said, “It was really powerful that we could bring that together for Connor’s memory and for his parents. “
Before anyone could take a breath, Rolling Stones published its now infamous article “A Rape on Campus” depicting a brutal gang-rape at a UVA fraternity as told by a student identified only as Jackie. “I didn’t realize that being mouth agape could be a real thing,” Ross said. “My mouth was just open. It was such a horrific story.”
In the following weeks, Student Council worked closely with administrators and student groups to address the situation and provide resources for students. One of their first efforts was to create a website with resources for survivors, and friends of survivors. The site includes tips on how to react when someone tells you they are a survivor and other helpful links including why rape was not considered an honor offense.
When University President Teresa Sullivan issued her initial response, students were upset by the seeming lack of feeling. Ross said that Student Council urged university leadership to provide students with a more emotional response. “Student Council is here to be the voice of the students. It’s our job to tell the administration how students are feeling. I had one word: overwhelmed.”
The week was not done yet though. Sophomore student Peter D’Agostino was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, leaving the community reeling as students left for Thanksgiving break.
When students returned, it was to find campus littered with news crews: the Rolling Stone’s article had been picked up nationally. “We had thousands of people engaged in the conversation of sexual assault that would never have been talking about it if it weren’t for the article,” Ross said.
As the article received more and more national attention Jackie’s story and the author’s reporting were called into question, meaning even more problems for Ross. Student Council had worked with administrators and students alike to rally behind survivors and create support for anyone affected by sexual assault. “Immediately 50% of the support was gone, but a lot of people stayed with the idea and agree still that we need to do something,” Ross said.
As more national attention was brought to the case, it became apparent that not all of the facts made sense. Most crucially, the fraternity where the alleged rape took place, Phi Kappa Psi, had had no function the night the article claimed the assault occurred. Ross said, “I think something horrible happened to her [Jackie]. I don’t know when, where, why, what. There are all the post trauma signs. The details? I will probably never know. For me, for Student Council, it’s never been about one case or story, it’s been about every case and every story.”
Despite it all, Ross isn’t bitter about his time in office. He had an optimistic smiled throughout the interview, disheartened by what has unfolded but deeply pleased with the role he has been able to play in helping the UVA community rebuild. Ross said, “We’re all bound together by the love for the place. Loving it doesn’t mean it’s perfect, it means we know it isn’t perfect and we love it anyways.”