For declining to take the COVID-19 vaccines, Lauren Palmer was treated like a pariah in her once beloved community at St. Michael’s College. As a result, she was forced to withdraw and while she is thriving at her new university, she is compelled to remind St Michael’s of the damage they caused in refusing to seek the truth, in coercing their community to take vaccines not supported by science and in their complete failure to live up to the mission they so boldly claim to uphold.
To the St. Michael’s College Administration,
My name is Lauren Palmer. I am a previous St. Michael’s College student. I transferred to St. Mike’s in the fall of 2020. I withdrew in August 2021 after St. Mike’s announced its Covid-19 vaccine mandate and continued mask mandate for unvaccinated students. I did not believe in the safety of these vaccines and did not feel comfortable taking one, and—even with an exemption—special regulations for unvaccinated students meant I had no autonomy on campus. Because of my “vaccine status,” I was both segregated from my peers and denied opportunities I would otherwise have enjoyed taking part in. I withdrew only after long consideration and considerable grief. Before I left, I wrote several letters asking the administration and Covid policy group on campus to reconsider its mandates, providing a number of the most recent studies, including the CDC’s and WHO’s own statistics. Each of these correspondences received only generic dismissals.
I am no longer a current student at St. Mike’s, but the college and the decisions of the administration around Covid-19 have had a continued impact on my life. I have spent much of the last two years coming to terms with this impact, and I write today to express what I can through this letter. I speak here only from my personal experience, not as an expert in anything beyond my own story, and as someone who once loved St. Mike’s. This letter is addressed equally to the college’s administration, to several of my former professors whose classes I had the pleasure of attending, and to a handful of others whom I came to know at St. Mike’s (should there be any not included in this email who ought to be, I welcome you to pass my words on)—I hope there may be some among you that take the time to fully read the following and that it may provoke a reconsideration of the events of the past three years. No student, faculty, or staff member should have had to face the decision between compromising their beliefs and leaving a place which had become like home; I hope my experiences as described below may begin to shed light on the long-term effects of these Covid-19 policies that especially students, both at St. Mike’s and across the country, were forced to confront.
I transferred to St. Mike’s in the fall of 2021, having already completed a year of credits at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. I chose St. Mike’s for its emphasis on the humanities and its commitment to a more classical education, as well as its small size which I felt would allow me to get to know my peers and professors better. I took a year off after withdrawing from St. Mike’s before deciding to reapply to new schools. I am now in my second semester at the University of Vermont, studying Classics and Asian Studies. I have about a year of courses left which I still need to complete to fulfil UVM’s core requirements as well as my major and minor programs.
I was, at St. Mike’s, not only an Honors student but also a coach-in-training at the Writing Center, a student employee at Durick Library, and an upcoming Residential Assistant. I organized several meetings for fellow transfer students to get acquainted with each other, and I was an active participant in every course I took, both inside and outside of class time. Had I stayed at St. Mike’s, I might have pursued involvement in the theatre as well. I willingly gave up these positions and opportunities with my withdrawal, and I stand by this decision. But I think it is important to understand that, while this decision was my own, I would never have had to make it if vaccine and masking mandates had not made this decision necessary. I left behind three jobs, I left behind friends and professors, and I left behind a learning environment which I felt, at least at that time, encouraged and nourished my love of learning. I am 25 this month—I would have been graduating this spring in just under two months. I will now no longer be a graduate at the place that I had once thought would become my alma-mater.
These were only logistical changes, however. The administration’s decisions around Covid-19 went far beyond this.
The decisions of the college shook my faith in humanity. They challenged my convictions about the human ability to overcome selfishness and fear in favor of love. And they devastated my belief in institutions like St. Mike’s which had professed to seek truth but only proved their ability to uphold blind injustice.
I have seen the worst of human viciousness and unkindness in the past three years, the frightening ease with which good people become tyrants. I used to wonder how terrible things happen—events like the Holocaust or the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I realize now it is the ordinary people possessed by a great fear who propagate such terrors. The worst events of history have happened because of the complacency and willingness of the majority: the reason that the practice of slavery in America was able to survive for so many decades was due to the arrogant belief of the majority that it was okay to own people and treat them as nothing more than animals. The Holocaust began with propaganda saying the Jews needed to be segregated because of the threat of disease, and the majority did not question this. The Cultural Revolution, aided by a decade long climate of fear, began with a series of articles published by Mao Zedong asking student activists to call out intellectual traitors in their society—photos from the time show professors, crowned with paper hats spelling their “wrongdoings,” bowed amidst crowds of cheering youths, madness in their eyes. That same madness reflected in their eyes is what shows today in ours. Only a society which is possessed by such a madness can have convinced itself that dividing and hurting any part of its community is a righteous cause.
Because of the decisions of our society today, I, like many other students who refused the Covid vaccine, was segregated from my peers. I was denied opportunities or told that I had to follow a list of restrictions in order to be eligible to participate. I could not live on campus over the summer. I could not participate in a student photoshoot for school publications. In order to work at the library, I was told to remain masked despite the rest of the employees and patrons having the freedom to choose. I faced walking onto campus each day not knowing what someone else might say to me about my vaccine status—wondering what names I might be called or what looks of disapproval I might meet. Because of these decisions of the college and society, I have watched close friends and classmates, faced with the choice the mandates forced them to make, crushed by betrayal and fear. I have watched some turn on their own friends or family with an unkindness I would never have believed possible. I have watched the souls of others die as they agreed to a mandate they knew went against their own conscience—feeling they had no other way. They should never have had to make that decision. None of us should have had to.
As a private college, I understand that you had and have more freedom to make these decisions than public schools. I also understand that, whether or not you had that freedom, it ought to have been your prerogative—as an institution which teaches its students about the right to autonomy and critical thought—to defend the rights of every student, faculty member, and staff to choose, a right owed to us as human beings which the Declaration of Independence, and even if not the Declaration of Independence at least our humanity, once guaranteed. You chose not to defend this right. And even if you had not agreed, as you proved, and even if every other person on the planet were saying that you were right and students like me were wrong, you ought to have given us the chance to speak. You ought to have given every student like me with concerns an open platform and listened not with a pre-determined answer, but with an honest ear. The silent condemnation you chose to serve to students like me is one of the worst acts you could have committed.
In future, therefore, I hope you will reconsider what it is that St. Mike’s stands for and whether you are indeed brave enough to uphold those ideals. I believed St. Mike’s to be a place of true integrity and learning, but you have betrayed, at least for me, the promise you swore to uphold as a place of true learning and, in doing so, you have betrayed in yourselves your own humanity. St. Mike’s professes to celebrate civil rights and liberty, but, from what I have seen of the college’s actions, you can be said to be little better than those who stood on the side-lines and watched while the police brutally attacked Martin Luther King’s march outside of Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday.
I believe it is at the beginning of the year that every student is required to take a Sexual Assault Prevention training. In that training, one of the central messages: “Don’t be a bystander.” Being a bystander is as much a choice as being a perpetrator. Yet the only feedback I received from St. Mike’s administration previously was that they were following guidelines, despite conflicts in the emerging scientific findings and perhaps too despite personal conscience. I can only say that your being a bystander to this situation was a choice too, and one not without consequences. I hope you may, therefore, find it in your hearts to recognize, in order that the future may be proven better than the past, the freedoms you have squashed, the dreams of your students which you have asked us to change, and the fear which you have empowered to run rampant. I hope you come to realize the enormous effect you have on every students’ life who steps onto your campus and walks through your halls. And I hope you understand fear, not health, not love, not kindness, has been at the center of these last three years. Love does not discriminate. Kindness does not turn a blind eye to the pleas of others, friend or enemy. Compassion does not encourage its community to shun and openly criticize certain of its members. If you truly wanted to protect our health, you would have educated your students with good food, encouraged time outside, allowed an open platform for discussion and the presentation of research, and protected our mental well-beings by allowing us a voice, not masking and shutting us down.
Given the responses I received two years ago, I do not hold much hope that many who read this will truly understand what I am asking, but perhaps enough time has passed now; I believe there must be some out there who have not forgotten their humanity and their compassion altogether. I must have faith that there are some left in whom the spirit of those like Gandhi and Thich Nat Han still lives.
I assume that the Covid-19 vaccine and booster is still mandated at St. Mike’s as it is today at UVM. I was able to get an exemption, though I know many students who either were not aware of this option or felt they would be denied—both at St. Mike’s and at UVM. I hope that, if this is still the case, you may take my letter and explore for yourself the new research being published about the vaccines as evidence that the Covid-19 vaccine should not be on the list of vaccines mandatory to attend St. Michael’s. I hope that, for those of you in the administration, you may take it upon yourselves to make an official apology to students affected by your mandates and that you take a hard look at the principles you purport to be built on and ask yourselves whether or not you have, indeed, upheld them. I hope that others who read this may take my experiences into consideration and may find the courage to support students of all voices by speaking up beside us in the future. We should never have needed to mask. We should never have been asked to vaccinate upon punishment of discrimination or withdrawal. Now, two years later, Covid is still around us yet the masks are off, never mind the continued questionability of vaccine efficacy and safety. Little to nothing has changed between today and two years ago about Covid itself besides your mandates, so I hope that alone may make you think twice about what you choose to do next time. It was not Covid but these mandates that empowered fear and unkindness to run unchecked in our community.
You do not know how many good students you have lost because of those mandates, nor do you probably realize how many others you have and are losing now by upholding these requirements even into today. My generation begins to look much like that World War I generation of young people who lost their souls, if not their bodies, to a terrible war. I can only say that, for my part, I do not intend to let my generation be another lost generation. There are students like me all across the world, affected by these mandates, who are now taking back the dreams and hopes for the future which colleges tried to steal when asking us to mask ourselves everyday and to stay inside, to stay away and to be silent.
There is a bench across the road from the college’s main entrance, overlooking the mountains. There is a quote inscribed on that bench by the poet Hafiz: “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” I hope you get a chance to go sit on that bench someday soon, if it is still there—I believe it must be. I would not want any other young man or woman to face the decisions and the trials I have faced in the past three years, but I must also thank these experiences for the strength they have given me. I must thank St. Mike’s in the end for teaching me the true meaning of Hafiz’ quote too, for it, if nothing else, has taught me, to paraphrase the words of an anonymous author, how to witness great darkness but not to let it consume my light—how, indeed, to recognize my own great light even in the midst of this great darkness.
I hope that someday you may come to understand the experiences I have expressed above—the experiences which are not only mine but all of my generations’—and that the horrible acts of the past three years need not to repeat themselves again.
Thank you sincerely for your time,
Lauren Elise Palmer
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