Why I Don’t Go to Plenary

The first time I walked into plenary, I experienced a familiar, overpowering surge of anxiety.  Ever since a traumatic incident at the age of 13, I have experienced frequent panic attacks, often triggered by loud noises, crowds, and uncomfortable social situations.  

Based on what I had heard before coming to Haverford, I expected plenary to be much less chaotic, and I expected it to feel a lot less like a high school cafeteria.  I thought I would be a part of a silent audience, respectfully listening to whomever was at the microphone. Instead, walking into my first plenary, I was overwhelmed by the high volume of noise, the constant movement, and the cliques of students huddled together, paying no attention to what was happening at the front of the room.  It seemed like the Honor Code was the last thing on everyone’s minds.

I had hoped that plenary would be a meaningful event which would help me begin to feel connected to the Haverford community.  Instead, it was just another socially isolating, overwhelming situation which triggered a panic attack. When I have a panic attack, I feel like I’m dying.  My body and mind shut down — sometimes I can’t speak, or move. I have flashbacks to the traumatic event, and I dissociate (I feel completely disconnected from reality and from my own body, and I experience temporary memory loss).

Not all panic attacks are the same.  According to WebMD, other symptoms of panic attacks include a racing heart; feeling weak, faint, or dizzy; tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers; sense of terror, or impending doom or death; feeling sweaty or having chills; chest pains; breathing difficulties; and feeling a loss of control.  These sensations are terrifying and real, and recovery can take hours. People who don’t go to plenary are often shamed, because their choice is viewed as a result of laziness or apathy. But for me, and for many other members of this community, the anxiety caused by this environment is an insurmountable obstacle.

My feelings of anxiety at plenary and other campus events have gotten worse throughout my time at Haverford.  What were once generalized feelings of panic became specific fears associated with painful memories of my experience as a woman of color, survivor, mentally ill person, student worker, and low-income student on this campus.  I can no longer tell myself that there is nothing to be afraid of, because in reality, this campus is not always safe for me or for other marginalized students.

It is difficult to be at plenary and to watch fellow students — some of whom have hurt me and my peers — act indifferent to the Honor Code and the process of community-building.  I wonder why I should feel obligated to make myself vulnerable to anxiety just to be surrounded by disrespect and indifference.

I care about this community, and I wish I could fully participate in the processes which encourage students to speak out and enact positive change.  I’m excited about the steps that the Special Plenary Committee is taking to make Special Plenary more accessible. However, until our campus culture becomes less toxic, I doubt that I will feel comfortable existing in a space like plenary.

Some of the factors which cause me to feel anxious, such as noise and large crowds, are unavoidable.  However, we as a student body have the power to change our culture. I hope that the changes we make to the Honor Code will foster a more respectful, empathetic climate on campus, a climate where I, and people with similar experiences and identities, can finally feel comfortable.