Photos by Kaelin Mendez
Countless professors have reached out to students following both the Borderline Bar and Grill shooting, which resulted in the death of freshman Alaina Housley, and the Woolsey fire, which resulted in the destruction of several students’ homes. These professors offered students everything from their homes to their hearts.
“This is the greatest crisis Pepperdine has ever experienced, and students should know that the faculty will support them in every way,” Loretta Hunnicutt, associate professor of history, said. “I want all of my students to know that I am committed to them and to their recovery from this very difficult time; I sincerely hope they feel loved and cared for.”
Following the fires, Hunnicutt welcomed her History 204 students into her family, giving them her address and cell phone number. Several days later, she sent them the following email:
“I think of all of you all the time. While I am glad you will have the next two weeks to rest and take care of yourselves, I am also saddened that I will not be able to see your faces for that long … Please know that all of you are very important to me. I am always available to hear your stories and provide you with whatever assistance I can.”
Hunnicutt said God has called her to serve her students in their time of need and, as a professor during a time of tragedy, her role is one of leadership and care. She realized many of her students were experiencing trauma for the first time, so her goal was to alleviate their fear for their safety and their anxiety about academic success. She has been encouraging them to receive help.
“As a parent, I wanted to do for my students what their own parents might not be able to do,” Hunnicutt said. “I care about them as people, and it pains me to see them in distress, so I want to do what I can to alleviate their suffering.”
Freshman Lauren Miles said she appreciates professors’ compassion during the recent tragedies. Joi Carr, professor of English and film studies, sent her class the following email:
“Each of you are on my heart. I am sending love your way and wish each of you safe passage literally and emotionally and spiritually. If you have opportunity, please let me know that you are in a safe place — I know some of you will be staying on campus. I am here for you: if you need to talk and/or need a virtual hug, if you are at a distance.”
Miles said she was moved when several of her professors provided students with their cell phone numbers if they needed assistance or wanted to talk.
“The level of empathy the professors have conveyed through their correspondences has shown how much they really care about their students,” Miles said.
Although it is harder to maintain contact with her large Humanities 212 class in Elkins, English Professor Cyndia Clegg said she reaches out to students every day through emails, encouraging them to contact her with any questions and concerns:
“I want you to know that you are safe and have options,” Clegg wrote in one of these emails. “We have many offers to our students of places to stay. Please let me know if you need somewhere to live. But more than that, please reach out to me with any other needs you may have. This is a big class, but I work very hard to know who you are, so please do not be afraid to reach out to me.”
Clegg said she believes that to care for their families and students, professors must care for themselves first.
“The role of faculty, and everyone else at Pepperdine in a moment such as this, is to do the best we can, encouraging each other with God’s grace, which we need to remember, nourishes and heals,” Clegg said.
In addition to helping her students, Clegg said she also reached out to colleagues in evacuation areas, welcoming Jane Kelley Rodeheffer, Fletcher Jones chair of Great Books, into her home.
In an email to her Great Books III class titled “I am safe — please keep yourselves safe,” Rodeheffer praised Pepperdine’s compassion during challenging times.
“Pepperdine has shown itself to be a tremendous community this last week, and I wouldn’t want to teach anywhere else,” Rodeheffer wrote.
After 30 years of teaching, Rodeheffer said her response to tragedy is simply to offer her presence. The day after the shooting, she spent time with her students and colleagues on campus, acknowledging their painful emotions.
“The Pepperdine administration has given the faculty a brilliant directive: We are to offer compassion to our students first, followed by latitude in our approach to administering our courses,” Rodeheffer said. “I hope that this tone will only be magnified when we return to campus.”
Adjunct Professor Sarah Dhillon offered her Nutrition 313 class a place to stay and a home-cooked meal, junior Miriam Knopp said.
Dhillon said in order to rebuild houses and lives, the Pepperdine community must support one another, offering kindness, time and resources to those in need. She was motivated by a genuine concern for others.
“I just wanted to make sure that my students were safe and had a place to stay,” Dhillon said. “I was very scared, and I can’t imagine what students may have felt with their families so far away. I told my students that my offer for a home is indefinite.”
Senior Veronica Sams said when her home was in jeopardy during the fires, Chris Stivers, professor of communication, kindly invited her family to stay in his home.
“The boundary between teachers and students [was] definitely broken,” Sams said. “My teachers became more like friends and were making sure our well-being came first. These times have been so hard on everyone, and they have showed so much love.”
Many professors asked students to share their locations after the Woolsey fire in order to ensure students were safe.
“I have been praying without ceasing for your safety and well being,” Christina Littlefield, associate professor of Journalism and Religion, wrote in an email to the Currents Magazine staff. “I hope by now most of your are with your families or heading that direction, but would you send me a quick update when you can, just so that I know you are all safe?”
Instead of lecturing her Mass Communication 371 students, Professor Katherine Parsons took her students to the prayer service for the victims of the Borderline shooting. During the fire, she constantly sent emails to her students, extending assignment deadlines and prioritizing their emotional health.
“Dr. Parsons has been a beacon of light in a truly devastating situation,” senior Courtney Jobe said. “Her openness and understanding of emotional trauma has truly helped me cope and heal … She even offered students her home as a place to house their pets, as well as assistance moving anything if they needed it. She sets the precedent for living by example.”
Religion Professor Nicholas Zola, who also attended the Nov. 8 prayer service with many of his students, reached out to his Religion 102 class, explaining that the stressful experience during the fires made the loss of Alaina Housley even more difficult to process.
“I would like to hear from you if you care to share an update of how you’re doing,” Zola wrote. “During times like these, I think it helps to tell your story … Please feel free to reach out to me if you need a listening ear.”
Philip Freeman, Fletcher Jones chair of Western Culture, said he does not understand the senseless tragedy and said he believes the best way he could help his students is to continuously listen to them.
“The professors at Pepperdine are the most caring community I’ve ever known in my many years of teaching,” Freeman said. “Most of us aren’t trained therapists, and we don’t always know what to say, but we do care about the students and want to help.”
Freeman said he hopes his students will resist the temptation to withdraw into themselves in order to avoid pain and instead reach out to their professors. He wrote the following email to his Humanities 111 class:
“It’s been a terrible day for all of us. I wanted to let you all know that I’ll be in my office (PLC 108) most of the day if anyone would like to stop by. I don’t have any answers, but I’m here if you’d like to talk.”
When sheltering-in-place during the Woolsey fire, faculty and staff reassured students of their safety while helping them remain positive and feel cared for.
Freshman Kiley Distelrath, a copy editor for the Graphic, said when she was sheltering-in-place, Rob Shearer, associate professor of decision science, and his dog cheerfully checked on her. He was trying to set up the karaoke system so students could have fun while waiting.
“It was encouraging to see my professor, a resident on campus, carry so much positivity during an uncertain time,” Distelrath said. “It amazed me, but also boosted my spirits.”
Sophomore Rachel Miner described Ida Nicolosi — music professor and Alaina Housley’s voice coach — as a source of solace during the night spent in the library. Miner said she witnessed Nicolosi reassuring several students who were panicking at the sight of flames.
“She even walked outside and talked to the policeman outside to get more information and then came back inside and explained in detail why we were completely safe where we were,” Miner said. “She was a very comforting and calming presence.”
Graduate student Megan House said she witnessed countless individuals performing remarkable acts of kindness. Professor Tyson Moore, and his wife Geneva, bought hotel rooms for the Humanities Division Office student employees. Briana Holder, a strength and conditioning coach, offered her home to students in need. President Andrew K. Benton told House he was sorry she had to carry her luggage when sheltering-in-place. A faculty member walked around the library at 2 a.m. ensuring that every sleeping student wore a face mask.
“This made me realize that the connections and relationships we form with faculty and staff on this campus go beyond the classroom,” House said. “I witnessed the unconditional love they have for us and how that has transformed Pepperdine from a school to a home.”
Follow Makena Huey on Twitter: @MakenaHuey