The Day We Fall Silent is The Day We Don’t Care Anymore: Nikki’s Story, Part Four

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Nikki” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

< Part Three

Part Four

I wanted to close my story by explaining how the PHC administration shuts out alumni, many of whom feel that they share a community with current students and would love to help them.

Remember, there is a division between many current students and the so-called “bitter alumni,” the PHC-coined term for any alumnus who voices criticism of the school. This division is actively encouraged by the administration. Student Life (through the RAs) tells students that alumni criticisms are baseless because they only come from “angry, bitter” people who are seeking to “destroy” the school. Since current students know few alumni and certainly have no idea what kind of people they are (or what alumni faced at PHC, since stories about things like the Schism are also rewritten by the administration when they are passed on to current students, if they are passed on at all), current students have in large part adopted this narrative that was actively spread to them.

The best example of this phenomenon happened last fall, when alumni voiced opposition to Stephen Baskerville’s Faith and Reason lecture, a mandatory, campus-wide lecture that condemned protective orders and domestic violence laws. Over 100 alumni (out of PHC’s roughly 600 total alumni) signed a statement asserting that the lecture “displayed an unacceptable lack of academic rigor” and unacceptably “encourage[d] students to doubt victims of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and abuse when those individuals come forward with their stories.”

Many current students became extremely hostile to alumni for voicing these criticisms (and began actively defending Baskerville’s lecture), a reaction caused in large part by the message Student Life was disseminating, i.e., that only “bad” alumni had anything negative to say about Baskerville’s lecture.

Alumni who want to invest in the student body thus face an uphill battle.

They must either be the “perfect” alumni who say the right Christianese, smile when they’re supposed to, and wholeheartedly support the administration in public (and thereby become one of the handful of alumni who get invited back by the administration for certain events) or they have to fight through the alumni-bashing and hopefully form connections with students who are willing to question the administration’s approved narrative. I call the first category the “holies.” And please know—some of the holies are fake, saying and doing what they need to publicly and keeping their opinions to themselves, whether out of a fear of social reprisal or because they believe they can do more good that way. But either way, the PHC administration has created an actively anti-alumni atmosphere, and I believe it has done so because it is easier to control the student body when the students do not have the support of and connections with the wider alumni community.

After all, it would be much easier for 19-year-old students to stand up to the administration if they knew there was a strong contingent of alumni also willing to go to bat for them. And it is also easier for the administration to control the narrative provided to students when their memory of the school, collectively, can’t go back further than 4 years.

Despite the administration’s dislike for alumni, we have a lot to offer current students. Therefore, almost three years after I graduated from PHC, I and several other PHC grads tried to start an alumnae organization. Our hope was to provide mentoring to current female students interested in a career. Many of the alumnae who joined the organization did so precisely because they had few female mentors during their time as a student (PHC does not have many female professors). PHC also has few career counseling services, and the alumnae organization was meant to provide needed support to current female students who would like to learn tips on how to write a resume, prepare a cover letter, or find an internship in their field. Additionally, many alumnae had struggled with the PHC-approved narrative that women were to be wives and mothers first, with career a distant and somewhat-frowned-upon second.

Many, many PHC alumnae expressed to me their desire to share with current female students how the limiting rhetoric at PHC does not reflect reality.

There is value and happiness in pursuing one’s career goals, whether as a mother or non-mother, something few PHC women get told while they are students. And finally, some alumnae also wanted to encourage current female students to keep pursuing their ambitions, even when it sometimes feels discouraging at PHC. In the so-called “real world” women are valued for their work and minds much more than inside PHC’s confines—a statement that I expect will shock most of PHC’s current students. Remember, it is a question of degree, as mainstream American society still displays sexist traits as well. But at PHC, you are never allowed to forget your gender. It is constantly brought up in jokes and banter and general commentary, whether inside or outside the classroom. As a woman, you are always different, by which I mean, you are deemed more emotional, motherly, romantic, lady-like, and fragile than the “manly men” of PHC. Traditional femininity isn’t something women get to choose for the fun of it or because it expresses their desires for how they look. It’s both presumed and required. And smart women who don’t fit the mold (in other words, who seek leadership and display traditionally “masculine” qualities) are bad.

That’s why it’s taken 14 years for PHC to even get a female student body president.

I remember one recent grad, who is now at a prestigious grad school, telling me that she loves grad school in part because she never feels that she needs to dumb herself down to be accepted by her male peers, something she had felt the need to do at PHC. I think that statement captures my grad school and general work experience, post-PHC, as well. It’s wonderful to be in an environment where you are not pre-assigned characteristics based on what’s between your legs. Whether they consciously articulate this sentiment or not, many alumni, I think, want to encourage PHC students that there is so much out there for them, if their PHC years are not going as planned or it has not been easy, it’s ok. It really is.

I systematically reached out to dozens of former PHC women to see if they would be interested in this organization, and their reaction was almost universally positive—but note, the positive reaction was nearly universal because the organization was about helping current students. I think it is telling that many alumni had no desire whatsoever to support the administration or even step foot on campus again—there were too many painful memories associated with the school. This is a distinction that I think current students fail to grasp. For many alumni, there is a world of difference between current students needing help getting an internship and the administration that has systematically bullied those students (and alumni) who did not fit its narrowly conceived notion of “a proper Christian.” I expect that there are dozens and dozens of alumni who would not lend a helping hand to the administration but who would pull strings and make phone calls on behalf of a job-seeking student in a heartbeat.

Sadly, the alumnae organization was stonewalled from the beginning.

Dean Corbitt expressed privately to others that she did not think I was fit to lead the organization (information quickly shared with me due to the ever-present PHC grapevine). She threatened to “pull the plug” on our first event, a meet-and-greet between current female students and alumnae, because I had invited too many (and yes, this is her word) “fringers.” I’m not sure what a “fringer” is. I do know that I had invited dozens of women from many different PHC graduation years and cliques, many of whom were former RAs and none of whom had reputations for disciplinary problems during their time at PHC. They were also extremely talented women who had achieved career success in many different areas and would be an asset to students interested in employment in those areas.

But it would seem that it does not take much to become a “fringer” in Dean Corbitt’s book.

Her need to control was also excessive. She was “offended” when I did not send her a Facebook invite to the event—because I assumed a college administrator had no need to oversee the Facebook postings of an alumni-sponsored event—and she personally contacted several of her favorite alumnae to make sure they would come. Apparently, my assurances that these individuals had already RSVPed yes to my invitation was insufficient. During the event, she played favorites excessively, turning her back on well-respected alumnae (who I assume she deemed “fringers”) and engaging in conversation only with those she approved.

Although I was hosting the event and was there for several hours, I did not get as much as a hello from her.

A few months later, she had all of the alumnae organization’s events indefinitely postponed, and I was told I should only speak with current students if I received explicit permission—anything else would be deemed a “refusal to cooperate,” something that seemed to have vaguely ominous repercussions attached to it.

Anytime I offered to provide an event to fit a specific need (resume writing, major-specific counseling, tea time with ladies who have attended graduate school, etc.), Dean Corbitt told me that the school was doing quite well, on its own, providing career counseling services. Later, I would learn that Corbitt was especially angry that I had “allowed” an anonymous contributor to QueerPHC (a blog describing the experiences of queer students at PHC) to attend our events. Obviously, no discussion of the blog’s content had ever occurred during our events. In fact, the blog was barely known at the time. Farris would not threaten to sue it for a few more months yet. It would seem that, were Corbitt to get her way about an alumnae organization at PHC, every attendee must be vetted according to Corbitt’s standards. Of course, that means that any leader of the alumnae organization must know all the gossip Corbitt has accumulated about various alumnae to even be able to apply those standards.

I was stonewalled for so long, I finally decided to confront Corbitt in person and ask her exactly why she disliked me so much, since I had never even spoken with her during my time as a student. I am sharing her response because I think it indicates how little it takes to be marked as a “black sheep” at PHC and how Corbitt uses her personal opinion about you to limit your ability to be involved as an alumnus—even when she cannot point to a single instance of wrongdoing on your part.

In response to my questions, she said I seemed “unhappy” during my time at PHC and that my senior testimony was concerning. Before the conversation was over, she also criticized the fact that I was pro-gay-rights and told me that it was not safe to let me speak to freshmen, who the administration has a duty to protect from dangerous and damaging information that they are not yet ready to handle. Strange—one would think that after being homeschooled, a form of education that is supposed to be vastly superior, PHC freshmen would be prepared to speak to a liberal alumna of their school. I wonder if PHC freshmen appreciate the fact that Corbitt doesn’t think they are capable of maturely wrestling with any information I might provide them that is contrary to the beliefs they currently hold. Is this really a rigorous liberal arts education at its finest?

In any event, I had expected her to deny, deny, deny. I confess, her matter-of-fact response startled me.

My time at PHC was marked by dramatic upheaval in my family, months of military-caused separation from my boyfriend (now husband), and long work days due to the part-time job that ate up my every weekend. Was I happy? Certainly not in the always-smiling image of bubbling Christian joy that I suspect she would have preferred. But I was hard-working, caused no problems, and was extremely competent. I graduated summa cum laude, landed the job that paved the way for entrance to a prestigious grad school a few years later, and became financially independent of my parents during an economic downtown. Despite all that, this woman, who never so much as greeted me in the hallways during my entire time at PHC, thought she knew I was unfit to lead an alumnae organization whose sole goal was to link alumnae with current students because I seemed “unhappy” to her three or more years ago.

And then there is my senior testimony. For those who do not know, seniors have the opportunity to give a 10-minute testimony to the student body during chapel, provided you give an outline of your speech to the administration beforehand. Some are quite well done, some are atrociously boring, but there are a few consistent themes, year after year. The most prominent theme is a call for the student body to be less judgmental. The speakers will either talk about being victims of judgmental students or about learning to become more emphatic themselves. It’s interesting how, no matter how many times students are told to be less judgmental, year after year, without fail, a good number of senior testimonies will still focus on exhorting the student body to stop being so judgmental. It’s also common for one or two students to transfer out each year, usually after freshman year, citing the school’s judgmental attitude as their reason. In any event, although I certainly agreed at the time that judgmental attitudes were prevalent, I decided to take my senior testimony in another, more unique direction. I’ll link to the audio here and let you decide how dangerous it made me. (You can also read the transcript here.)

When I was starting up the alumnae organization, I was told, multiple times by many well-meaning people, that the administration would kill it. I kept hoping that something would change, that this would be the time that someone who wasn’t one of Corbitt’s darlings could actually do something good for the students. So many PHC women were interested in helping out, the organization had a lot of potential. When it became clear that Corbitt would never allow me or an organization I was part of near the students, I stepped down from my post, put the reins of the organization in other hands, and sat back and waited for months and months. Maybe something will happen now. It looks like it might, and I hope it does. I would rather some organization exist to help current students, without my involvement in it, than no organization at all.

But whether the alumnae organization gets off the ground or not, the reality is that PHC’s administration cares more about controlling the information students receive than about letting students form relationships with alumni who might be “bitter,” might no longer adhere to the restrictive statement of faith, and might no longer share the school’s right-wing ideology.

If the only way you can remain on their “good” list is by believing the same things you did when you were 18 and showed up on campus (or at least by never publicly changing your mind on anything), PHC has snubbed its nose at a huge number of its alumni, including many of the former golden children who were the RAs and RDs the administration counted on.

So this is why I’m one of the “bitter alumni.”

I don’t stick to the approved narrative that PHC is a wonderful school full of wonderful people. I’m not going to sing the praises of a school that does not deserve them. I’m not going to pretend that PHC is some kind of citadel of Christian learning, that it respects its students, or that it accepts those alumni who have varied beliefs and experiences.

After being part of the PHC community for 8 years, I know better than that.

I also know better than to expect many current students to understand. It took me years to accumulate the knowledge I now have, let alone to realize that Christian leaders at institutions I was told to respect are often just as fallen, misguided, and dangerous as the “atheists and sinners” I had been warned about all my life. So if you are a current student at PHC, please know that those of us in the “bitter alumni” camp don’t hate you. We actually care very much about you. We criticize the school and its behavior because we see it hurting you, in ways you might not even recognize for years, just as we often did not recognize the school’s behavior as harmful during our time as students.

The day we fall silent is the day we don’t care anymore.

One of the most common themes in the stories PHC students and alumni submitted to HA over the last several weeks is loneliness. If you are a current student and you feel that way, if you want to talk with one of the “bitter alumni” about those gut feelings you have and the doubts you are shoving to the back of your mind, feel free to reach out to me by messaging HA. They know how to get hold of me.

End of series.

Apostate: Lillia Munsell’s Story

Homeschoolers U

My first year at college involved no drinking, a lot of prayer circles, and five hour exams. This is not an experience I recommend to others.

I paid dearly for the privilege of a year at Patrick Henry College, the conservative Christian school frequently called God’s Harvard. PHC was founded in 2000 by Moral Majority darling Michael Farris, a constitutional lawyer who also began the Home School Legal Defense Association. Homeschooling is both an educational model and a lifestyle, growing from 800,000 in 1999 to over 2 million in 2012. As a homeschooler born at the end of an era of legal oppression, I owed a debt to Mr. Farris. I was taught I must continue his work by challenging the liberals and conquering the culture for Christ. At homeschooling conventions, young men in suits extolled the virtues of PHC, calling it a haven for homeschoolers, a place that would understand my lack of a GED and provide me with the Ivy League experience without the East Coast liberalism. My mother was immediately sold and began pushing for PHC in 2002, while the first class were still sophomores. Ten years later, I was in a Subaru Outback crammed between a printer and a mattress protector, making the drive to my shiny new fundamentalist future.

There are 1,318 miles between my childhood home and my gender-segregated PHC dorm, and I cried for at least 600 of them, but for all the wrong reasons. I should have been questioning the wisdom of leaving behind family, friends, and a newly acquired boyfriend for a school that isn’t accredited. I wish I could blame my mother for this decision—parents are the best scapegoats. But it was me who decided to embrace my childhood religion and sign a statement of faith that promised I would never have premarital sex and always deny the lie of evolution.

Depending how you count, there are five to eight passages in the Bible that refer to homosexuality, and Patrick Henry College made sure I knew each one. Midway through my first semester, a fellow freshman insisted that soy milk turned people gay. Trying not to choke on the ridiculously expensive dining hall food, I asked what he meant. “It’s the estrogen,” he explained to me with all the confidence that came from studying high school biology at the kitchen table. “It turns people gay. How else do you explain California?” I don’t know how to explain California, but this did explain the rumors about my lactose-intolerant Cuban friend who poured soy milk over his cereal and said deviant phrases like “what the hell.”

Another student refused to say the word “naked” because it was too profane. She carried around a stuffed bunny and sang opera at all hours and locations.

To many, PHC is an idyllic sanctuary of innocence nestled in the green Virginia farmland. Set back from Highway 7 on the edge of Purcellville, a small town with southern charm, terrible restaurants, and undertones of racism, the college was close enough to DC to funnel interns to work under the Bush Administration and far enough away to shield us from the liberal rallies. When Loudon County suggested extending the metro line out towards Purcellville, Mr. Farris objected because too much secularism could travel over the metal rails. The 24 hour Harris Teeter grocery store across the street was the most fun PHC students had, especially before they banned kick scooters in the isles.

To drum up numbers, free Chick-fil-a was offered to students who attended an anti-abortion rally. These were the pictures that appeared on my classmates’ instagrams with hashtag phrases like “God is good,” “protect the innocent,” and “Aslan is on the move.”

Student clubs littered stairwell bulletin boards with posters advertising their platforms. I was asked to join the Wilberforce society, a group devoted to moral reform, especially a local government ban on porn. To the best of my knowledge, they pursued this goal by picketing the one adult store near town and drafting legislation proposing a parental control that could be placed on all Loudon county internet.

“How can you tell these stories with a straight face?” My incredulous (and public schooled) friend asked me one night after I mentioned how a senior professor used the term “honey-trap” when referring to a vagina. “Because they’re true,” I shrugged. Later that year, the same professor was the keynote speaker on Faith and Reason Day, the most important event of the semester. Three hundred and fifty students sat in rapt attention as this doctor argued that divorce is a state conspiracy to destroy the family by emasculating the father. He claimed campus rape was over-reported and not a real problem, but rather a feminist ploy of crying “wolf!” and destroying godly young men. Although I heard from faculty members and students who insisted he didn’t speak for the whole school, the speech was edited and approved by the administration.

Of course, this is the same administration that interrogated journalism students, accused them of slander, and threatened to expel them after they circulated an independent article that criticised a professor.*** This is the same administration that ignored accusations that one of their blonde PHC poster boys had blackmailed and sexually abused two female students.

He was later elected class president and his sins conveniently swept under the rug.

One of the most disturbing things about an insulated community is the echo-chamber effect. I’ve met a lot of Christians who don’t believe in Reaganomics or distinct gender roles, but at PHC, they were considered the suspicious fringe believers. In US History, I heard arguments defending the Trail of Tears. In Economics, students leaped to condemn workplace safety laws. To be fair, many of the professors walked the narrow line of challenging these views without telling the students they were wrong. One female professor confided in me that plagiarism was an epidemic in her class, but she feared that if she reported it, the administration would fire her for being a woman and stirring up trouble.

Detachment became a coping mechanism. I realized I was in a nest of crazy, and there was nothing I could do about it. I tried to skip the mandatory daily chapel hour, but my RA caught on and confronted me, so I began sitting in the back and sneaking homework between the pages of my Bible. The cafeteria was a hive of debates about free will vs. predestination and whether slavery had anything to do with the civil war, so I never sat down to eat. The library, built in a basement and stocked with a few rows of carefully selected books, was functionally useless. With only two academic buildings and five dorms—two of which I couldn’t go in, because they were men-only—PHC lacked hiding spots. I holed up in my room and found solstice in the internet, especially when I purchased a virtual private network that shielded me from the nanny software that sent every url I visited to my RD and blocked me from buying a new bra because the product pictures were deemed “pornographic.”

I was raised to believe the Bible is completely inerrant. Although I had struggled with my faith growing up, I always came back to this idea because I thought it gave me a solid, consistent worldview. Worldview is a term fundamentalists love, thanks largely to the work of 20th century theologian Francis Schaeffer, who famously wrote, “Most people catch their presuppositions from their family and surrounding society the way a child catches measles. But people with more understanding realize that their presuppositions should be chosen after a careful consideration of what worldview is true.” I know this quote by heart because I used it over and over in academic papers. PHC made me reconsider my worldview by showing me its conclusion. I entered the school hopeful and convinced I was not a racist and maybe even a feminist, and I fled disillusioned with my own prejudice but also with a better knowledge of ancient Greek.

After two semesters, I left my friends and religion behind. I wrote a letter trying to explain the former, but I resisted publicly admitting the latter. To admit a lack of faith is to lose the soapbox. I will become secular, a honey-trap, a feminazi, a wolf in sheep’s clothing—a homeschool apostate, to use the term recently coined to describe the kids who have grown up and aged out of dogma. When I moved to Austin, one of the few liberal areas of Texas, one student proclaimed “that explains it,” and refused to elaborate.

I wish I could explain things that easily, but a year spent living in black and white opened my eyes to the shades in between.

*** UPDATE 2 pm Pacific, 07/28/14: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that (1) journalism students were threatened with expulsion for writing a critical piece about a professor and (2) the professor whom the critical piece was about was the same aforementioned professor who gave the Faith and Reason Day presentation.

Patrick Henry College Releases Statement on Sexual Assault Cases

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By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

On Monday, Kiera Feldman — a member of the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism  — published a story in the New Republic about how Patrick Henry College (PHC) has handled sexual assault cases on its campus. The story, entitled “Sexual Assault at Patrick Henry College, God’s Harvard”, has caused an uproar among homeschool alumni, PHC graduates, and others. The story got picked up by Salon and other news agencies.

Yesterday, PHC’s Office of Communications released a “Statement by Patrick Henry College to concerned alumni and students about article in The New Republic.” It was disseminated yesterday to alumni and today to PHC’s general student body (and was met with student applause).

You can view the statement in full as a PDF here. An excerpt follows:

Many of you may be aware of an article just published in The New Republic magazine (and picked up by several websites/blogs) concerning allegations of sexual assault now being made in connection with events that occurred off campus some years ago – especially about one situation more than seven years ago, and another about four years ago.

…Patrick Henry College is absolutely committed to the protection and care of our students, male and female equally…

…The fact is that the information provided by the key individuals at the time differs from the allegations now related in the New Republic article. The College acted on the basis of the information made available at the time. Moreover, at no time did anyone suggest to any female student that she was somehow responsible, or more at fault for the situation…

…Where possible, we provided the reporter and the magazine with clarification of some of these allegations contained in her article, but she either chose to disregard the information or simply lumped the information into a single paragraph toward the article’s end…

…Any fair observer would conclude that a review of the entire evidence demonstrates that PHC earnestly sought to do the right thing in each instance, did not attempt to cover-up any sexual crimes, and did not seek to blame women for the improper behavior of male students…

…We are glad that the number of such situations involving PHC students is far below American campus averages…

(PHC Professor of Biblical Studies Darrel Cox also wrote his own statement, arguing that the New Republic piece was “a very angry (and honestly, shoddy) attempt at a hit-piece” and that the actual victim in all of this is Sandra Corbitt, PHC’s Dean of Student Affairs.)

Rachel Leon, who was cited in the New Republic article, gave the following response to PHC’s statement:

As Sarah’s friend and former roommate, it’s been deeply distressing to watch some of the direct and indirect attacks on her testimony and character from both the Patrick Henry College administration and the wider PHC community. Sarah is a humble, truthful, and brave friend who only came forward because she wanted to do something to help other victims of sexual assault at PHC. In the hellish days right after the assault, Sarah painstakingly drew up a detailed account of her assault to turn in to Dean Corbitt. This is the same account she turned in to the journalist who wrote the New Republic article. Sarah honestly believed that the administration would handle her case appropriately, and we both felt a sense of betrayal when the administration instead chose to discipline both her and her attacker as though her sexual assault had actually been a consensual encounter. Her account of the assault and her attacker’s account of the assault really only differed on one point: her attacker said it had all been consensual. That Corbitt chose to discipline her by having her read materials about purity shows that Corbitt believed Sarah’s attacker’s version of events from the start. This gives the lie to any notion that the college handled this investigation in a fair and impartial manner. I still vividly remember sitting in Corbitt’s office holding Sarah’s hand as she violently trembled while explaining the details of her assault and responding to Corbitt’s harsh cross-examination. I still vividly remember the way she sometimes screamed at night because of her nightmares. I still vividly remember walking her across campus after dark because she was afraid to walk alone. As I reflect upon some of the worst memories I have of my time at PHC, I challenge the PHC community to step up to the plate as a Christian community and demand greater support for victims and accountability for all who would choose to harm them.

Further reading:

** Note Sessions’s comment, made in September of 2013, months before the New Republic piece:

Girls have been raped while attending Patrick Henry College: girls who I sat next to in class, by men who I sat next to in class. Other women I know were at different times mercilessly harassed, stalked and frightened—all on the campus of Patrick Henry College. Often it was the “nice boys” no one in a million years would imagine could do something like that until they saw it with their own eyes.