‘A change this big will take everyone’: Tri-campus reflects on culture after derogatory Yik Yak posts about Saint Mary’s students
Genevieve Coleman | Friday, September 24, 2021
Editor’s note: This story includes strong language, as well as mentions of sexual assault and suicide. A list of sexual assault reporting options and on-campus resources can be found on the Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross websites.
Following the release of Shamrock Series ticket lottery results on Sunday, Saint Mary’s students were targeted through anonymous online posts on the social media platform Yik Yak.
The posts belittled Saint Mary’s students’ intelligence, compared them to terrorist organizations and joked about survivors of sexual assault and victims of suicide like Lizzy Seeberg, a first-year student at Saint Mary’s who took her own life in 2010 after she reported that she had been sexually assaulted by former Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo on August of that year.
College president Katie Conboy sent an email to students on Tuesday, noting that the College was “here to support” students in the aftermath of the posts.
University spokesperson Dennis Brown told The Observer these Yik Yak comments did not align with Notre Dame’s values.
“Notre Dame finds abhorrent the anonymous postings that recently appeared on the social media application Yik Yak,” Brown said. “They are antithetical to the spirit of Notre Dame and to the close relationship between it and Saint Mary’s College, dating back to their respective founders.”
The Observer also reached out to Yik Yak for comment about the process for removing posts that go against the application’s “Community Guardrails”, which according to their website are meant to protect users.
“Any post that violates the Community Guardrails should be taken down and the user potentially banned,” Yik Yak’s statement said. “It is important for anyone who sees anything that violates the Community Guardrails to report any post in the app by tapping the three dots icon on the yak itself. We will immediately take it down once our moderators see it. We will not stand for people posting content that violates the Community Guardrails.”
The Observer spoke with student leaders across the schools in order to delve into tri-campus culture and into possible solutions to issues like the one evidenced by the Yik Yak controversy.
Notre Dame Student Government leaders encourage unity, change in the tri-campus
Notre Dame student body vice president Matthew Bisner offered some descriptions of the messages on Yik Yak and explained their disparaging nature.
“The ones I saw were heavily down-voted Yik Yaks attacking the character and intelligence and the worth of Saint Mary’s students — that was just troubling and heartbreaking to see,” Bisner said.
Speaking on the connections formed between Saint Mary’s Student Government Association (SGA) and Notre Dame student government, student body president Allan Njomo said they were disappointed because the Yik Yak posts do not reflect their experiences with the Saint Mary’s community.
“We’ve had the opportunity to grab dinner with [Saint Mary’s SGA president] Elly and [SGA vice president] Adriana over at Saint Mary’s and we’ve fostered that relationship since they were elected and look to work together, so it’s definitely disheartening to see all this good work going and foster this good relationship with both Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross and then run into something like this,” Njomo said.
Speaking to first-years at Saint Mary’s, Bisner said the opinions shared on Yik Yak are far different from the opinions of those who support Saint Mary’s students.
“To our first-years over at Saint Mary’s: You’re welcome here and even though this had the ability to blow up and be shared so many times and in so many different ways, this is a very vocal minority of things on Notre Dame’s campus,” Bisner said. “So many more of us are so happy you’re here, so happy to get to know you, work with you and to be your friends.”
Njomo added that student government is following the work Notre Dame vice president of student affairs Fr. Gerry Olinger has been doing with Saint Mary’s to address the issue.
Bisner expressed hope that Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s can create solutions to adequately resolve the problems these Yik Yak posts reflect.
“Going forward, we really hope that Fr. Gerry and his counterparts over at Saint Mary’s do all they can to create a culture of accountability, and specifically accountability in this specific circumstance,” Bisner said.
Saint Mary’s student government demands accountability for derogatory posts
Saint Mary’s SGA vice president Adriana Salgado described her experience with seeing posts on Yik Yak escalate throughout the end of the weekend.
“I got on Instagram, and I saw that Smick Memes had posted several screenshots of like things that had been said,” Salgado said. “By the end of the day, they would have been considered the more tame ones.”
SGA president Elly Hanson, who posted a statement on Instagram condemning the Yik Yak content, noted her resolve to continue to reach out to Notre Dame.
“I wanted to react out of frustration, and I had a lot of things that I wanted to say that would have been mean, but at the end of the day, you can’t fight fire with fire,” Hanson said. “And the only thing that we can do is keep extending a hand towards Notre Dame and show that we want to have a better relationship and it’s up to Notre Dame to decide if they want to have a great relationship with us.”
Hanson also expressed concerns regarding the serious topics that users were making light of on the platform.
“It’s easy for them to say things like that because they’re hiding behind a screen,” Hanson said. “But it was disgusting — I could not believe that people actually thought that was a joke. It was heartbreaking.”
Salgado said she hopes the College administration will have impactful conversations about stereotypes about Saint Mary’s students.
“I think our administration has made a very good attempt at saying and addressing the problem, but I do think that we need to have more difficult and personal conversations on how we can prevent this from happening,” Salgado said.
She also noted a desire for accountability.
“I love Notre Dame [and] I think Notre Dame should be held accountable,” Salgado said. “I don’t know why they had to say the things that they had to say, and why they had to bring Lizzy [Seeberg] into it. It was just not mindful of survivors, it wasn’t mindful of women, [and] it wasn’t mindful of the mothers, sisters, cousins, aunts who have attended Saint Mary’s. It was just negative and hateful.”
Salgado concluded by questioning the reciprocity in Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s relationship.
“Obviously, we love Notre Dame,” Salgado said. “We cheer for their football team. That’s why we signed up for these tickets. Why can’t they love us in the same way?”
Notre Dame students stand in solidarity with Saint Mary’s
Notre Dame sophomore Kasey Nye discussed both Yik Yak as a platform and the mindset of the users who have posted disparaging comments.
“What’s so toxic about Yik Yak is that people can say these things anonymously, but what this is really highlighting is the underlying issue — people are having these thoughts in the first place at a place that claims to be so good for their community,” Nye said.
Nye also mentioned some Saint Mary’s students don’t want to wear College apparel on the Notre Dame campus.
“I know a lot of Saint Mary’s girls who don’t want to wear Saint Mary’s stuff on campus,” Nye said. “It’s true and very legitimate. Like, if you wear Saint Mary’s stuff to parties, you’re going to be treated differently and that’s just misogyny and classism and elitism all mixed up in one, which is very unfortunate.”
Nye expressed gratitude for the people she knows at Saint Mary’s and disappointment that people don’t feel the same way.
“Some of the greatest girls I’ve ever met are from Saint Mary’s and that’s sad that a lot of people can’t see that,” Nye said.
Notre Dame junior Connie Chen also discussed stereotypes about Saint Mary’s students and how they differ from her persoal experience.
“The stereotypes that are promoted by Notre Dame about SMC [are] disgusting to hear,” Chen said. “I’ve spent my fair share of time at Saint Mary’s, I know a lot of people from Saint Mary’s, I’m friends with a lot of people from Saint Mary’s and they’re all fantastic people. It really breaks my heart to hear s— like this but know a completely different narrative.”
She also addressed how the culture on the tri-campus can change.
“I think that it falls both on the University and the College to go out there and change that narrative,” she said. “I think if we’re being idealistic, we should say that the University should intervene and go and try to make more programs, so we meet SMC girls and things like that. But I think that’s idealistic. If we want to be realistic, it has to be an individual push to change and that falls on you to try to reach out and make new friends.”
Student organizations, academic programs address harm created by comments
Notre Dame Band piccolo section leader Alena Coleman said she was upset by the posts made against Saint Mary’s students.
“For me, these comments were ugly, but not surprising,” Coleman said. “The piccolo section is proud to have Saint Mary’s students as a part of our section, so I’ve heard stories about the kinds of things Notre Dame students will say to Saint Mary’s students.”
Coleman also referenced the inclusive nature of the band.
“These comments are really disheartening because they just show willful ignorance and, in my personal opinion, the deeply-rooted sexism and elitism in the Notre Dame psyche,” Coleman said. “The band became co-ed before the University thanks to pioneers from Saint Mary’s, and Saint Mary’s students are a really vital part of the piccolos, especially.”
Coleman was one of the leaders who encouraged band members to dress in support for Saint Mary’s during one of this week’s practices.
“Specifically, because of the Yik Yak comments, a few of the piccolo seniors — including head drum major and former piccolo Ella Wisniewski — coordinated an effort to buy shirts from the Saint Mary’s bookstore,” Coleman said. “Saint Mary’s students also lent out t-shirts, so we were all able to wear Saint Mary’s merch to [Tuesday] night’s practice.”
Coleman said she hopes to uplift Saint Mary’s students and make them feel that they belong in band.
“The other drum majors even got involved,” Coleman said. “It was a really small gesture, but we got a lot of positive feedback from SMC piccolos. It’s really important to us to reaffirm the place of SMC students in the band, so we’re hoping to continue doing more events like that to support them.”
Notre Dame junior Tilly Keeven is a member of the Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s Co-Exchange program to complete a College major in secondary education. As a student on both campuses, she shared her perceptive on tri-campus relations.
“Although we call it ‘the tri-campus community,’ there really isn’t one,” Keeven said. “We expect the Saint Mary’s students to come over to [Notre Dame] for everything. It really does seem in a gross way that Saint Mary’s girls are treated like … soon-to-be wives of Notre Dame guys and that’s all they are.”
In regards to the jokes the Yik Yak commenters made about suicide, Keeven noted the importance of conversations about mental health and misogyny.
“I think that it’s important that we talk about mental health, and I’m really disappointed that a specific individual’s name was brought into it, especially without the consent of her family,” she said. “I understand why it’s important to talk about these things and I think Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s alike need to have that conversation, but at the same time, the comments that were made were so linked to misogyny. It’s difficult to unblur those conversations.”
Keeven said she is not hopeful tri-campus relations can be mended.
“It’s really upsetting to think about,” she said. “I love so much about going to school at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s, but that’s one bridge that I don’t think is ever going to change. It’s still going to be a completely different world.”
Saint Mary’s Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) coordinator Liz Coulston said she believes in the value of the tri-campus working together to resolve issues of sexual violence and mental health.
“I believe the more collaboration we can do as a tri-campus community, the better,” Coulston said. “We have an opportunity to unite on the important issues of sexual violence and mental health and truly make an impact for our students, faculty and staff. I believe we accomplish more together than alone.”
Coulston encouraged a large shift in culture that holds everyone accountable.
“Mandatory education for students and staff can be valuable, but overall, these programs have not been found to change the culture as a whole,” she said. “As a tri-campus community, we need to set the norms that violence of any kind is not tolerated and everyone is expected to do their part. A change this big will take everyone.”
For Saint Mary’s students, especially first-years, Coulston had a simple message.
“These posts are hurtful, cruel, disgusting and confusing — whatever you are feeling is normal. Also remember, you do not need to handle any of this alone. There are people on our campus who want to support you. Reach out. If you’re not sure who to reach out to, you can start with BAVO.”