UMD students deserve better

Like countless other parents of college-bound high school seniors living in Maryland, I started steering my daughter toward her state’s flagship university last year, when we began talking about college options. The University of Maryland, College Park, with its strong academic reputation — it touts itself as “one of the nation’s preeminent public research universities” — and reasonable price tag, seemed like a no-brainer. But in light of recent preventable student deaths there, I’ve begun to feel that by pushing for my daughter to attend College Park I’m leading her into the path of a formidable safety hazard.

It is almost impossible to live in Maryland and not have heard of the tragic death this summer of Jordan McNair, a former College Park student and football player who collapsed during a routine practice and died two weeks later. Had the adults in charge of the players’ health at that practice followed routine treatment guidelines for dealing with suspected heat stroke, including taking McNair’s temperature immediately upon collapse and immersing him in ice-cold water, the former college freshman would likely be here today.

I couldn’t help but think about this terrible tragedy just months after it occurred, while sitting in the auditorium of the independent high school my daughter attends. We were there for a mandatory information session for college-bound seniors. The school’s director of college counseling asked for a show of hands from students who planned to apply to the University of Maryland, College Park. About three-quarters of the seniors’ hands immediately flew up in the air. My daughter reluctantly raised hers (I think she’s dreaming of blue California skies in her future). I was somewhat surprised at the overwhelming response, given the relatively recent news of McNair’s death.

There are a couple plausible explanations. First, although many in the audience would be labeled “affluent,” for all but the country’s very wealthiest families the prospect of spending around $80,000 for four years of college tuition plus room and board at an in-state college is much more digestible than the current four-year price tag of $200,000 to $250,000 affixed, respectively, to many out-of-state public universities and private colleges. Second, it’s possible that most parents viewed McNair’s death as an isolated incident. Few, if any, Division 1 football prospects sat in the auditorium that night. So maybe the adults figured their kids were safe. Now, they may be figuring differently.

The mandatory college preparatory meeting took place in September. A palpable sense of excitement rippled through the auditorium that night, as both students and parents recognized the pivotal educational journey on which they were about to embark. It’s very likely that Olivia Paregol experienced that same sense of giddy anticipation a little over a year ago, as she prepared for her own college search process.

Paregol, who entered the University of Maryland, College Park, this fall as a freshman, died on Nov. 18 from complications of adenovirus, which can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to pneumonia. Since Paregol’s death, the school has confirmed at least 30 cases of the virus, whose severity in Paregol’s case was likely due to her immune system having been compromised by medication she took for Crohn’s disease.

Some people associated with the university are questioning whether adenovirus symptoms were worsened by living, as Paregol did, in a mold-infested dorm at the school, from which students eventually were evacuated. Recently, the school’s efforts to eradicate the offensive mold have been deemed inadequate. An independent firm hired by the university to assess the school’s mold remediation efforts noted that further improvements in the dorm’s HVAC system are still needed to combat potential future mold problems, especially if wet weather conditions persist, as they tend to do in this region.

Parents confront a lot of legitimate worries as their children depart for college: being overwhelmed and under-prepared, overindulgence of various types, social isolation, to name a few. Death at the hands of negligent adult leaders and abhorrent and potentially dangerous living conditions shouldn’t be included in this list, especially at College Park, a self-described “global leader in research, entrepreneurship and innovation.”

If our state flagship university is truly interested in investing in tomorrow’s scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators, it can start by demonstrating a stronger commitment to its current student body by providing consistently vigilant leadership and proper standards of living. Our college students deserve better. They deserve, at the very least, to be safe.

Elizabeth Heubeck (emheubeck@gmail.com) is a freelance writer.

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