When Molly Tobin walked out of her on-campus residence at Wheaton College two weeks ago, she couldn’t believe her eyes: Splashed across the back door, in thick black marker, was graffiti spelling out hate for Jewish people.
Tobin, who lives in the school’s Jewish Life House, was shocked, angry, and terrified.
But in the aftermath of the hate crime that occurred on this intimate liberal arts campus in Norton, the Wheaton College community has come together in an unprecedented way, with campus-wide discussions, a solidarity potluck dinner, and a Facebook photo campaign geared toward highlighting the college’s diverse student body.
Some say the incident has prompted much-needed soul-searching on this campus of 1,600 undergraduates.
“We are, in a sense, a microcosm of society at large,” said the school’s president, Ronald A. Crutcher. “Anytime things like this happen in the wider world, you hope that people learn from it. What I’m very hopeful about here, and what’s thrilled me, is that our students have taken this to heart.”
The graffiti appeared on Nov. 11 at the campus Jewish Life House, close to the center of campus. The house, one of many culturally themed dormitories at Wheaton College, was established just this year.
Tobin, who lives in the house with three other women, spotted the graffiti at about 1:30 p.m. that Sunday. She saw three markings, drawn in a row across the door: A Jewish star, crossed out. A phallic symbol. A derogatory term for a Jewish person. “I sort of stared at it for a while,” said Tobin. “It was like an out-of-body experience. I was like, is that really what’s on my door right now?”
Campus police are still investigating the incident, and have conducted more than 15 interviews. The images were drawn in the middle of the day, as one of Tobin’s housemates saw the door at 10 a.m. without graffiti. Wheaton College has also put up a $1,000 reward for information related to the crime, Crutcher said.
Crutcher said he believes the culprit was someone from within the Wheaton College community, because the Jewish Life House is not marked.
For Tobin and her housemates, the graffiti was cause for serious alarm, especially because one of the women had heard someone yelling anti-Semitic remarks at their windows in the early hours of the Saturday before the graffiti appeared. They were too scared to sleep in their house Sunday night. The college dispatched campus security to patrol the house between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. each night after that. Tobin said she is still fearful of walking around campus at night.
But in the ensuing days, Tobin said she has felt a swell of support from peers and faculty. A campus community meeting in the school’s chapel drew more than 600 people. Dozens gathered on a Saturday night for a potluck dinner aimed to bring together disparate campus groups. A women’s sports team, Crutcher said, took to writing words of encouragement and welcoming in multicolored chalk on the campus’s asphalt sidewalks.
One sophomore, Lydia Hill, said professors have been willing to incorporate discussions about the anti-Semitic graffiti into lesson plans. In one class, an anthropology seminar taught by Donna Kerner, students brainstormed an idea: They wanted to start a campaign on Facebook to highlight the campus’ all-encompassing diversity.
The campaign, dubbed “We Are Wheaton,” features more than 100 uploaded photos of students, faculty, and staff holding up signs that read: “We are Wheaton. I am ___. And I am equal.”
Participants inserted their own self-descriptions: “Jewish,” “Catholic,” “a feminist,” “Egyptian,” “a Kentuckian.”
“This is a reminder that no matter what values we espouse and write down, if we don’t all live those values every day, things like this can happen,” Crutcher said.
Still, there have been tensions in the days since the discovery of the graffiti. Because of a miscommunication with campus administrators, Tobin said, the graffiti was painted over the next day. Tobin had wanted it to stay up, at least for a little while, as a reminder to the campus community of the vitriolic nature of the markings.
“I think it would have been powerful,” she said. “A picture is one thing. Standing there and seeing it is something else.”
And at some points, Tobin has questioned whether all members of campus understand that the graffiti was not just a mere act of vandalism, but a hate crime aimed at a religious group. But she’s hoping the incident will serve as an opportunity for her peers to gain a greater sense of awareness.
“It’s pretty tragic that something on this level had to happen for the campus to respond like this,” Tobin said. “But I think something good will come out of this.”Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.