When I first came to Appalachian State, I thought it was perfect.
I tell this story a lot: I sent in my deposit before I ever visited. It wasn’t that I’d heard a lot of great things about Appalachian. Instead, I’d been rejected from my first-choice university and all my friends had been accepted, and the twin ideas of mountains and far-away seemed infinitely appealing.
And then I visited. No feelings I’ve ever had for a person could merit the phrase “head over heels,” but when I first saw the way the sun stretches over the bell tower on Rivers Street, I went tumbling.
I was awkward and unsure, and my first year of college was terrifying. But everything about the institution itself was comforting. I pored over the friendly, jocular orientation materials — all those glossy pages and smiling models.
They called it the Appalachian Family, and all through my first three years of school, I believed it.
In the fall of 2012, I was the managing editor of The Appalachian at ASU. It was another one of those things that had made me think words like family, made me think about that first visit and the sun over Rivers.
One night, we got our first anonymous tip.
“Yeah, I just thought you guys should know,” the voicemail crackled, “there are two football players being tried for rape downstairs.”
At first, we just looked at each other — the editor-in-chief, the sports editor, and me.
At some point, the sports editor and news editor went stalking around the student union, looking to see if anything was really going on.
There they were, the two players, being led in for their student conduct hearing.
It took months, but eventually, our most relentless reporter built a relationship with the accusers and got their documentation from the student conduct hearings. Eventually, the editor-in-chief and I sat in a room with one of the accused men and heard hours of quotes we never managed to coax onto the record.
The day before we broke the story, a member of the University Communications staff called us and threatened expulsion.
We couldn’t use documents from student conduct hearings as sources, the staffer said, even though they’d been provided for us by the students involved.
We went back to our sources — the alleged victims — and went over every fact, one by one. We got it from them, on recordings, in quotes — not from the documents.
We lost a few quotes from the administration, but we still had a story without them. We ran it the next day.
We continued to report on the story for the rest of the semester.
Twice, Appalachian State made major releases about the case. The first was an announcement that the players’ suspensions had been reinstated. The second was an official release of the accused players’ names.
They made the first announcement the first day of our Spring Break. They made the second the day after our final print newspaper of the year.
When I read David Forbes’ Shut Up and Pay, a reported-out essay on the university’s culture, I recognized the Appalachian State I knew — the Appalachian State I’d gotten to know when I wrote about it.
I’d talked to David a bit while he was working on the story, helped a little with sources and background, and I’d been waiting to see what he came up with.
I didn’t agree with every line. I chafed a little at the cartoon of Chancellor Peacock. I’ve been a defender of his and still can’t stray from my instinct that he’s a good man who cares about his students — all of them.
All the same, I told David after the story ran: You’ve nailed it.
This was the Appalachian State I’d written about, and these were the broader ties I’d never recognized while I was writing.
In an interview with one of the alleged victims the week after the suspensions had been reinstated, she told me she’d sat on Sanford Mall for the first time in months.
The quote as it reads in the story is this:
“Yesterday was probably the best day that I’ve had since all this happened, because I could relax on my own campus. I spent the whole day on campus – outside, enjoying the weather, enjoying Appalachian again.”
I remember it with more emphasis.
I wasn’t there on the nights Meagan and Alex described. I don’t claim to know what happened, or to have a grasp on any solid truth.
I do know that every time I thought about Appalachian State that year, I thought about them.
Selfishly, I thought about waking up the day after what was supposed to be my last day as editor and seeing they’d released the names.
And I thought about the strings of comments on our website, some of them defending the athletes, but so many of them repeating some variation of, “The same thing happened to me. They didn’t do anything.”
It drowned out the sun on Rivers Street.
A few days after I read David’s investigation, I was walking through Sanford on my way to class. I haven’t been able to spend much time on campus this semester — I’m always rushing to get down the mountain to Lenoir, where I work.
I don’t know what it was that day — the sun or the music in my headphones or the early spring bustle of everyone milling around in Chacos — but I remembered that first day and I felt it again.
Because in spite of what I thought, it wasn’t the institution that made me feel at home in Boone.
It wasn’t the institution that walked me home the first night of Welcome Week when I was scared and shy and overwhelmed; that was my freshman roommate. It wasn’t the institution that wrangled me into the newspaper staff dinners where I found my best friends; that was my junior-year editor. It wasn’t because of the institution that I walked through the snow at 18 and realized being happy might just be a thing I could handle.
I did love Appalachian State. I do.
What it comes down to, though, is that everyone deserves that — not just me.
All I dealt with was some unsavory PR wrangling. Others have dealt with so much more.
I’m not arrogant enough to think I understand the whole of this situation, or even the pieces. But it’s my assumption, my feeling, that most at the university aren’t trying to do anything malicious. They’re not trying to sweep allegations under the rug. They’re not trying to build a misogynistic culture.
But they are.
A year after five football players were accused of rape, the football team chose a new slogan: “Always Attack.”
Even if it’s what I think it is — tone-deafness, and not maliciousness — it’s deeply unacceptable for it to continue. The university has to do better.
Meagan Creed, one of the girls who accused the athletes, came back to the university.
The other, Alex Miller, never did.
I can reconcile the institution with the experiences, and I can love Appalachian State.
But all those Alex Millers — they deserve that, too.