Volume 76 | Issue 6
November 2008

President's Column: Community building, from tragedy to possibility

Rich Steele

rich112008The commute to school or work in Atlanta can be tough, and some days are tougher than others—especially when something goes wrong. On a warm September morning, I experienced something that had gone terribly wrong, but later learned of the incredible good that grew out of this situation.

Sitting a few cars back at a traffic light nearing work one morning, I saw a huge trash compactor hauled on a truck making a left turn onto Spring Street. It caught my attention because of its bright blue color. A few seconds later, an Atlanta Police cruiser, lights flashing, bumped its siren and pulled across Spring just past the intersection. I thought that someone was going to have a bad morning.

I then heard another sound—sort of an odd siren. A few seconds later, the second cruiser approached the scene, traveling against the one-way flow. Obviously an incident had occurred. I thought it was lucky that two cruisers were immediately on the scene, and maybe traffic would not snarl too badly.

When the light turned green, four lanes of congested traffic crept through the intersection. Two right lanes were blocked. As I made my way over one lane, I continued to hear the wane of the odd “siren” that I had heard earlier. I saw the blue trash compactor angled and stopped just ahead.

A police officer then appeared, leaning over a crumpled something. Then I realized that the odd “siren” was actually the shrill scream of a small crumpled person lying on the pavement. It was a sound only replicated in horror films. The continuous scream was bloodcurdling, and it was a vivid summation of a pedestrian hit by a 30,000 pound truck. The second officer was now on the scene and a third person, head in his hands, likely the truck driver, was on the sidewalk.

A few days later, I learned from our dean of students what had happened. A Georgia Tech MBA student from France, I’ll call her Anna, was cycling to campus when she was hit and run over by the truck. Her legs were crushed and the prognosis for her survival was grim. It took some work and time to track down her parents who immediately made their way from France to Georgia to be with their daughter.

Meanwhile, Anna went into surgery to amputate one crushed leg and to repair vessels in the other in a drastic attempt to save her life. The prognosis was 50 percent chance for survival.

As word of the accident reached Anna’s peers on campus, amazing things started to happen. Her MBA cohorts flocked to the hospital to hold vigil. They notified professors of her situation. They took care of her personal belongings, even collecting her flattened bicycle from the side of the road. By the time her parents arrived the following day, a furnished apartment had been arranged for their stay in the same complex where Anna lived and at no charge. They supplied food to those at the hospital and to the family. An inspiring community of support ignited around Anna and her fight for survival.

At the hospital, miracles and milestones were the story. Doctors were able to repair damaged blood vessels and save both of Anna’s legs. Anna made it through the critical first night and after 24 hours she was expected to survive. After another three days, doctors became hopeful for the possibility of a full recovery.

Anna’s story made me wonder about our role as community builders. Was there anything about our college union or student activities that contributed to the selfless students who enveloped Anna with a strong community of support? Does the fact that we purposefully and intentionally design programs, facilities, and services in such a way as to support the creation of community on our campuses make a difference in a situation such as this?

My answer was: probably not. The essence of community resides in the soul. Our intentional efforts do indeed facilitate the creation of community, but our intentional efforts could never facilitate the loving support that Anna received from the heartfelt effort of her cohorts.

However, there may be an as yet unexplored side of community. The full circle of community may also entail an element of recognition. Should our role as community builders also include the responsibility to recognize and applaud the outstanding efforts of those who contribute to creating a strong sense of community on our campus?

I believe that we must continue to devote our professional efforts to be excellent campus community builders. I also believe that we should challenge ourselves to make our work crucial and relevant for the campus as a whole. The effort to assess and recognize great community builders would most likely have the return benefit of making us better community builders for our campus.