UMD president models courage and resilience amid tragedy

This summer, the University of Maryland found itself thrown into a situation in which personal and professional challenges rather than academic ones came to the forefront. As a result, more than 40,000 currently enrolled students are the beneficiaries of learning about coping with adversity in a healthy manner — lessons that may help them at a future time in a way the formal classroom may not.

Tragedy struck the university hard this past June with the death of student athlete Jordan McNair. Jordan, a 19-year-old offensive lineman, collapsed and died after suffering a heat stroke during a preseason workout on the college practice field. This catastrophe is compounded by the fact that his death may have been preventable. In an Aug. 14th letter, University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh acknowledged that mistakes were made by trainers who did not “implement appropriately the emergency action plan, misdiagnosed the severity of Jordan’s initial symptoms, did not assess vital signs, and did not promptly and properly treat for exertional heat illness.”

Oftentimes when external circumstances present challenges, people find themselves overwhelmed with fear, and they prefer to stay within their comfort zone of predictability and familiarity. Leaders may communicate through a spokesperson, or they may not speak at all because it is an ongoing legal matter. They might deny wrongdoing or point fingers of blame. Communication deteriorates, distrust rises, and the possibility of moving forward in finding successful resolutions becomes less likely.

By creating an external commission to investigate errors made by the university and “interview student-athletes, their parents, staff, and other stakeholders,” Mr. Loh is demonstrating courage. It takes courage to relinquish control, step outside one’s comfort zone and consider other options.

Mr. Loh has written that he has met with and apologized to Jordan’s parents and accepted legal and moral responsibility for Jordan’s death. His actions demonstrate personal integrity. He is modeling for students that when they err in their personal or professional lives, personal integrity will help them find the courage to pursue the resolution they are seeking.

Courage is healthy and good. It is like a psychological muscle that helps us push through life’s hurdles. The more frequently we exercise this muscle, the stronger our self-confidence becomes and the more we will believe that we can confront problems head on during times of great pain. It will empower and bring out the best in us.

Courage doesn’t always come easily. It is possible that the two-month delay in reaching out to the community following Jordan’s death was a result of pursuing other matters, ones which blocked Mr. Loh from attaining his goal of providing comfort and direction to a grieving community while simultaneously tending to administrative matters. Sharing with the University of Maryland community the barriers that created the communication delay would offer transparency into the matter. Such information would provide students with valuable insights, not provided in the classroom, about responding to disappointments, losses and significant challenges.

Everyone will experience adversity at some point in his or her lifetime. But not everyone will cope well with it. We can’t blame ourselves because oftentimes we have not been taught how to do so. We encounter adversity and we find our emotional “tool box” of coping skills empty. Mr. Loh’s reaction to this tragedy — the good as well as the missteps — is teaching every student, and perhaps others, about powerful components of overcoming adversity; about remaining personally accountable, even when faced with the worst possible tragedy; and about being engaged in seeking help and taking action rather than avoiding uncomfortable feelings.

Eileen S. Lenson is the author of “Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges” and a Terrapin, with an undergraduate and masters degree from the University of Maryland. She can be reached at Eileen@LensonLifeCoaching.com.

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