Dean’s Blog: When Tragedy Strikes

November 21, 2022

The tragic event that took place on the evening of November 13, 2022, which led to the death of three University of Virginia (UVA) students, Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler, and D’Sean Perry, and injury to two others at the hands of one of our own will stay with us always. As I write this, families, friends, students, faculty, staff, and our local community are all in a period of mourning and still trying to process what happened. We will recover, but “normal” will not be the same as it was before.

Having, many years ago, personally suffered serious personal trauma of a different kind, but survived, I can testify to the lasting impacts of such events. In my case, it was not at the hand of another person, but at the hand of Nature. A train accident left five people around me dead and had me trapped in claustrophobic conditions for eight hours. I was the last person brought out alive. On the negative side, you are never quite the same again. There is suffering and anguish, if not physical, then mental, and often at times and in ways that you cannot anticipate. A car backfiring, a smell that sends memories rushing back, a fear of planes, but not trains, etc.

On the positive side, such events reveal the best in all of us, as we cope in our own way and reach out to others to provide love and support. We are all stronger through what we share with each other. Individually, the event shapes our lives in some unique way. The trauma I experienced put everything that followed in a new perspective. I was able to more easily recognize what was truly important and how to focus my time and attention. A useful attribute for a dean. I sincerely hope that we learn about our strength of community and resilience from this experience. We may even learn positive things about our community we would not have otherwise known.

The School of Data Science (SDS) tries to operate as a professional family, where all are welcome and equal. Once you have joined the family as a student, staff, or faculty member, you are with us always. Families may disagree, but in times of crisis, they stick together and help one another. That is exactly what I see happening in our School.

Our Office of Student Affairs team has been compiling resources and creating safe spaces for students to receive sought-after support. In order to allow our residential master’s and Ph.D. students the opportunity to reflect, mourn, and gather with one another. We had a School-wide gathering where students were able to grieve, meditate, share, and listen, with the opportunity to write notes of encouragement and condolence to the victims' families.  This was followed by an in-person event for faculty and staff. A virtual gathering for our online students is forthcoming. Going forward the School plans to host drop-in hours for all community members to join in conversation and solidarity. 

We have become stronger as an organization in our ability to address adversity, COVID was our recent lesson. Our school leadership meets frequently, and our university leadership meets frequently, both acting by consensus for what we feel is best for our students, faculty, and staff. Still, nothing quite prepares you for such a senseless loss of life. 

The challenge is to make accommodations under the worst of circumstances while maintaining a sense of normality. With the end of the semester looming, this is particularly important. It is possible to act normally, but not be normal. Each of us is processing the tragic loss of life and the accompanying fear and anguish this tragedy has brought to our collective communities. We each bring our own life experience that causes us to grieve in our own way, and we must give each other the support, grace, and space to grieve and process as best we can. We must give each other the support and space to grieve and move on. Know that I and the entire SDS team are standing by to help our Data Science family in any way possible. Please reach out as needed.


Stephenson Dean