An open letter to the College of William and Mary

There are misconstrued thoughts that no child should ever have to hear, but even worse think. That they don’t measure up. They’re not strong enough. They’re not worth it. And they might not have any other options. At a university like William and Mary however, where we take the top of the top of each school and combine them with every other valedictorian in the state, that’s exactly opposite what our students were told when they first opened up their acceptance letter. That was a letter that reaffirmed their worth. They were good enough, especially for the prestigious institution we pride ourselves on being. They fit. And to arrive, experience our campus, and then think even more that they didn’t fit and didn’t have help is a promise broken to every single member of the Tribe.

I’m usually proud of my university and what we stand for. I’m never proud, however, of the lack of help it offers my friends in need. I’m not proud that it prioritizes the marks in their exams over the marks on their wrists, and makes their concrete steps toward better mental health into failures. I’m not proud that when a student thinks to withdraw from a course in order to actually be able to manage the amount of tasks on their to-do list, it’s shameful. And I’m never proud that that shame translates to the thought that they’re not good enough for our university.

At this point, we know mental illnesses exist. Especially on a campus such as William and Mary, where the student body is overly helpful, caring and open-minded, an exchange of stories, tips and support usually flows between confidants. We have organizations like HOPE spreading its awareness, and each campus organization offers its own support club. We have students pushing for change and striving for decent help, and yet every member of campus is still too aware of the failing reality that we can offer as much support to friends as possible, but we’re far from trained professionals. And we don’t have access to those.

I went to the on-campus counseling center once in my four years at university, at a time where I dealt with anxiety bad enough to interfere with my ability to sleep and attend classes. It doesn’t offer a glowing review of the facility that I can’t remember what actually happened during that visit. All I do recall is that sometime during the conversation, word got out that I was covered with military healthcare, and was pushed to make a visit with my military hospital instead. I never went back.

Granted, I may have a been a student lucky enough to live half an hour away from home, but that didn’t solve the problem of living on campus, and living without a car. I was also a student lucky enough to only have slight brushings with an unhealthy mindset, and anxiety that I was able to control, once realized. It makes me worry about the students who aren’t so lucky. Who came to school hours away from home, from another state or another country. Who, like so many others experiencing change and upheaval during the move to university, experience these issues for the first times in their lives. Who are too afraid or too ashamed to call home for help. And who don’t have access to proper resources at the campus they chose.

At times like these, I worry about the one student who felt too alone in our student body, the student who lived a day too short to see each life he touched come together to celebrate his. Unfortunately, since my worry can no longer affect them, it turns instead to the students left behind. As an alum hearing the passing news, the first thing I always do is send a proof of life request to my family still studying in the brick-faced buildings, and think for a moment how two parents are now deprived of that privilege. I worry about the 6000+ other students, whether they’re now wondering about the now tripled chance that they could suffer just like the three other classmates this year. And I worry that as much as the student body pushes, help won’t come until the numbers are too high.

Now, as an alumna, I readily admit that each individual student helps to foster a stressful, stress-feeding environment. We feed off the stress from each other, and use the pressure put forth by our professors to drive our work. Everyone’s had the conversation around exam time that escalates into a competition of “who’s more stressed?” It gets to a point where you can’t even mention your worry without hearing the busier agenda of each person around you. And as much as we hate it, we continue to do so to validate not only our own self-pity, but have others validate our hard work.

But what happens when that backfires? And a student is left thinking that they’re not taking on as much as their peers, and still finds themselves feeling ten times worse than the others? As much as we want to blame the institutions, stigma, and lack of public awareness as the main actors in these issues, we forget that mental illness derives from the daily events one encounters. And that we, as their direct peers, knowingly contribute to them.

Paul didn’t go to university to die. He came for an education, for the growth, the help and support we promise to each student, and whatever he found wasn’t enough. He didn’t need to be the third “Notice to the Community” this year, or the 7th in the past five years since I began at the College. But in doing so, he makes us realize that our students aren’t becoming memories, they’re becoming statistics. And how many more statistics is it going to cost before the community, at every single level, changes to make a healthier campus for the 6,000 students told they were already successful enough to earn a spot as part of our One Tribe, One Family?

It’s always painful to see the amount of statuses and pictures on social media promoting “One Tribe, One Family,” because you know they only show up again when times like these happen. Our slogan itself is a message of help. It’s a reminder that whoever you are and wherever you go, walking the trodden bricks of our campus earns you the support of the one tribe, one family our student body has always been. But the sad reality is, One Tribe, One Family only exists to comfort the students left behind.

Lauren Keefer, Class of 2014, via

Email Lauren Keefer at


  1. Lauren,

    I don’t recognize the college you describe. I went to W&M and had developed epilepsy in high school. The college I went to went out of its way to make sure I was receiving treatment and allowed me to do what was necessary to get through courses without “special exception.” I will always be grateful for the college preparing me for life, because it doesn’t get any easier once you’re in the real world.

    I have a son with depression who is starting college next year and it worries me every day that he could harm himself if he suddenly decided, in all his adolescent wisdom, that life isn’t worth living. I feel for Paul’s family and his friends. I would be heartbroken if my son did this to himself and to our family. But I disagree that this is somehow the fault of the college and shifting the responsibility for one—or seven—acts of self-destruction hardly seems accurate or constructive.


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