COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests have clarified that the calling of my small Presbyterian Church-related college goes beyond the classroom.
I wish the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who founded the college I serve could have chosen a location that would, at the very least, have been the future home of a Panera Bread. But they were called to a higher purpose than my favorite fast-casual food. Education, to our founders, was a service to society, particularly a liberal arts education that developed mature, critical thinkers who could synthesize knowledge to solve complex problems.
Every fall, I get the chance to stand up during our first-year student orientation and explain what it means for our college to be church-related. It’s a tough gig. How do you make Presbyterian history interesting to 200 sweaty students right after lunch? I try to tap into their desire to be a part of something greater than themselves — our tradition of moral courage, servant leadership, faith in the face of adversity, social justice and radical hospitality. “Our goal is not to make you all Presbyterian,” I tell them. “Our goal is to make the world a better place.”
Monmouth College has always served our small community. Faculty, staff and students support our town’s economy by buying real estate, renting apartments and shopping in local stores. Free lectures, music and theater performance, poetry readings and art shows add to our community’s culture. Student groups regularly rack up service hours in local nonprofits. Our sports teams’ successes unite us in local pride. When COVID-19 sent our students home to study online, our community mourned the cancellation of events as much as our college.
Locals also covet college jobs for the tuition remission they and their children can receive. One of my favorite graduation moments took place a few years ago when Belinda, a local woman who cleaned my office and would always stop to chat, graduated with her bachelor’s degree. We gave her a standing ovation as she walked proudly across the dais, diploma held high in her hard-won triumph.
Here in Monmouth, Illinois, population 10,000, it’s easy to feel removed (or safe) from the pains of larger urban areas, but this virus is the great equalizer. COVID-19 has unveiled injustices that our Presbyterian founders never faced.
In late April, the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed as cases of COVID-19 spiked to 783, and our local plant soon followed. Then President Trump ordered it to reopen, citing the threat of a broken food supply chain. With Smithfield satisfying the nation’s taste for pork, our small rural county quickly spiked to the fourth-highest rate of infection in Illinois. If we didn’t realize how we were all connected, how none of us is immune to the social inequities this virus has further exposed, we do now.
When we pivoted to online learning in mid-March, Zoom classes and meetings were a new window in our students’ homes. Our college prides itself on successfully launching first-generation students and we recruit heavily from Chicago. Some are living in small apartments, caring for sick family members, acting as translators when nurses call, taking on extra jobs to support the lost wages of the sick — all while trying to keep up with their coursework. COVID-19 has revealed how our small residential campus in the rural Midwest serves as a sanctuary for students to focus on their studies.
In the midst of current Black Lives Matter protests, our students and alumni of color have reached out to faculty and staff mentors for support, prayers and resources for nonviolent protest. But they have also angrily challenged us to examine the white supremacy inherent in our institution. We remain a predominantly white institution that needs to do its own work of examination, confession and planned action towards justice and systemic change.
This virus, and the protests that have spread worldwide, serve as a stark reminder that no matter if we live in China, Italy, Chicago or our small rural town, our lives, our values, our systems and our structures influence and affect each other, no matter the borders we build. The work our college’s founders started – the work of education, of equipping our citizens to understand their responsibility to society, solve complex problems and lead with moral courage – feels more necessary than ever. Whereas their mission was focused on educating settlers in this region of the Illinois frontier, ours expands nationally and globally. COVID-19 and the nationwide protests have made this clear. What’s also clear is our call to recognize ourselves as a part of our larger societal problems — and a part of the solutions.
TERI McDOWELL OTT serves as the dean of the chapel of Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, and is currently writing her first book, “Risks Privileged People Should Take.”