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This week marks the anniversary of Nick Garza’s disappearance, and the beginning of the almost four-month search that led in May to the discovery that Nick (class of 2011) died during the February break, after apparently walking off from campus and falling into Otter Creek.

We have mourned Nick’s passing, and struggled to understand how such a vital, promising young person could be here one day and gone the next.

And as our community has grieved, we have moved on to a critical follow-up question: what did we learn from Nick’s death?

There are many possible answers to this question, so I will begin with a few and hope that others chime in with their own.

  • We learned how fragile life is and how quickly it can be taken away, despite the resiliency of youth and the safety of Middlebury College.  We learned that we should not take our well being for granted.
  • We learned that northern New England winters are not to be taken lightly, that we must respect the elements when we traverse the campus and the landscape beyond, especially after dark.
  • Finally, we learned—or, more accurately, we were reminded—that use of alcohol can lead to tragic consequences.  This truth, so brutal in its impact, remains the hardest to engage.

But, of course, we can’t evade this last point, and in fact we—and here I speak as an administrator—have not ignored it.   The President’s baccalaureate speech last May, the conversations that we hosted with student leaders in the Old Chapel board room this fall, and the proposed changes in alcohol policy recently discussed in Community Council are all aimed at increasing the sense of accountability and responsibility that students feel for one another.  For this is the most important lesson of all: in order to deal effectively with dangerous alcohol use and to develop a more successful social life, students must be willing and able to watch out for one another and care for each other.   To follow up on this lesson, the administration will therefore convene a task force of students—chosen from all parts of campus life—to develop a peer-to-peer leadership program that addresses drinking and irresponsible behavior under terms that students can accept as their own.

If not this and if not now, then what have we really learned?

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