Sunday, October 11, 2009

Celebrating life

This weekend we mourned the loss of one of our students, Demetrius Watson, who was shot to death October 4th.  I knew Demetrius through his work with Dr. Mardis on our solar cell research.  Ironically, discussion of another tragic death came across my desk this weekend in the form of an editorial and letters to the editor in the latest issue of C&E News.  Sheri Sangji, a 23-year old research assistant at UCLA, suffered extensive burns after a laboratory accident and died on January 16th of this year.  The incident resulted in an investigation into laboratory safety and raised questions about both proper emergency training and appropriate experimental techniques.  The topics of letters included the use of laboratory showers, the rationale for synthesizing dangerous chemicals that are commercially available, and even the workload demands imposed by faculty advisors. (Sheri was injured during the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve; a week when university campuses are oftentimes quiet and unpopulated.)  Sheri's untimely death has lead to impassioned discussions months after she has been laid to rest.

What will we be saying about Demetrius' death in July, 2010?

I struggle with the issues faculty and students face at Chicago State.  Despite how different the needs of comprehensive urban institutions are from more traditional colleges and universities, we are nonetheless measured by standards set for schools with very different environments.  I don't suggest that we be permitted to play by different rules, but the reality is that our students don't have the opportunity that I (and other academics) had, where we could spend our college years in a self-centered exploration of knowledge.  It's easy to make education "priority #1" when yours is the only mouth to feed.  Non-traditional students need non-traditional models for academic success.  Yet oftentimes programs to improve academic achievement at comprehensive institutions are built upon traditional models of success.  This is a square peg in a round hole situation.

Nine months after Sheri's death, we are still working on ideas and actions that could prevent her incident from being repeated by others.  In July 2010, we will no doubt still be discussing the problems posed by urban violence.  The question becomes, will we be willing to implement non-traditional solutions to our students' non-traditional needs?  Will Demetrius' death contribute to the conversation on improving student success, or will he become a statistic?

My last interaction with Demetrius was speaking with him at his CAET poster, where he was explaining his research accomplishments to date.  I remember walking away from that poster thinking, "he's getting it."  He was grasping the scientific  questions raised by his research project; he was representing our department well.  While I am saddened by his loss, I am strengthened by the role-model he served (and his memory can serve) as to his peers.

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