Macon Mall amphitheater breaks ground, community members hope to see new life in west Macon
It is a jovial scene at the Macon Mall’s groundbreaking event.
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It is a jovial scene at the Macon Mall’s groundbreaking event.
A new student organization at Mercer is working to mentor children in villages around the world, seeking to help address poverty through providing education to low-income communities internationally. Mercer Village Mentors was founded in late September 2020. Organizers at Village Book Builders, the organization which coordinates the village mentor program, approached juniors Natalie Yaeger and Parneeta Mohapatra about starting a chapter on campus after the students worked with them earlier that year. Village Book Builders currently helps provide communities in countries with high dropout rates the resources to build libraries complete with books, computers and internet access at their local schools, CEO Tyler Clark said. The communities build their libraries, name them and run them themselves. With each new library, Village Book Builders are able to partner with village mentor programs at universities who can mentor these students virtually, Clark said. “These library and these mentor programs give these students some of the best education in their countries,” Clark said. “The ability to connect with a college student is life-changing for them… It is empowering for these kids and gives them hope for what they can do.” In Uganda, one of the countries where Village Book Builders operates, 68% of kids drop out of school before sixth grade, Clark said. In communities with these programs, the organization has been able to reduce that rate to only 10%. According to Clark, every additional year a student stays in school, their annual income tends to increase by 10%. This means that if they can keep a student in school up until 7th grade, they can lift these students out of extreme poverty. “The dropout rate in these countries are terrible,” Clark said. “If they have a mentor who care about them, they stay in school.” After mentoring children individually during late 2019 and early 2020, Yaeger, Mohapatra and Vice President Ashton Taylor enjoyed the program from their prior experiences so much that they decided to create a chapter exclusively for Mercer students. Yaeger first started volunteering with Village Mentors after realizing the discrepancy in the education that students were receiving due to the effects of COVID-19. She saw her siblings struggling with online classes and imagined what it’d be like in different areas around the world. “If there’s anything I learned during quarantine, it was that we have to take those moments to do what we can to make a difference,” Yeager said. “This was just one way that I found.” Currently, Mercer students are mentoring students in Adeiso, Ghana. One of the students that Village Books Builders works with in Adeiso, Mathias, works as what is essentially a shepherd, Clark said. Because his parents died, he is raised by his aunt. When they were building the library in Adeiso, Clark said, Mathias would come down to the library every day after work since he wanted to come and read books. “When we told him he could not only just read the books but get a mentor, he was overwhelmed,” Clark said. “He felt like he had a hope of the future. He felt he would have just have to be a shepherd the rest of his life like the rest of his family. Now, he wants to be a doctor.” Student mentors at Mercer are paired with one child to work with over eight months. Mentors indicate their availability when they first apply to the program. Mohapatra said that interested students submit a short application, including a two-minute video that is used to gauge applicants’ interest in committing to the program. During a normal session, Mohapatra said that mentors base whatever they’re teaching their mentee off of what their mentee is currently learning in school. However, because schools are currently not in session due to COVID-19, the mentors must adapt, she said. “The tutors are really having to step up and create their own curriculums for each day that they tutor,” Mohapatra said. In Adeiso, the pandemic has had a huge impact on their community, Clark said. With schools out of session, many kids have been sent to work in the gold mines in the region, but he said the pandemic has caused tons of issues that go beyond child labor. “Since the pandemic, drug abuse, alcohol use and teen pregnancy has run rampant,” Clark said. “Child labor, sex trafficking, I can go on — and this is what happens when they are out of school. If we can keep them in school, we can keep them out of sex trafficking.” Yaeger said that the group currently has between 20-25 mentors here at Mercer, but she said that there is still room for growth. She explained that mentors can tailor their involvement to their schedule, as long as it works with the time difference in Ghana. Moving forward, Yaeger and Mohapatra plan to formalize the curriculum they’ve been developing, they said. Mohapatra said that their goal is to get the curriculum from the school they partnered with to create resources for future mentors so that mentors can teach in tandem with what their mentees are learning at school. Later on, they hope to raise enough money to be able to establish another community program as well as hopefully visit Adieso. Both said, however, that would likely be several years down the line. Mercer Village Mentors’ first general meeting was Jan. 24. Interested individuals can find them on Instagram.
About a fifth of students visiting Mercer’s Office of Counseling and Psychological Services have sought counseling specifically because of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on their life, data kept by CAPS shows, underscoring the additional mental health challenges COVID-19 has caused at colleges across the nation. “The anxiety that is associated with COVID — whether they are a student or not — has put us at a different baseline,” said Emily Piassick, director of CAPS. Piassick holds a doctoral degree in counseling psychology. “I’m not sure we have ever experienced anything like what we are experiencing right now within most of our lifetimes.” While the Student Health Center’s new job administering COVID-19 testing on Mercer’s campuses is a more obvious change in on-campus health care in comparison to before the pandemic, CAPS has also seen COVID-19 cause increased mental health challenges on Mercer’s campus. In April, a survey conducted by Active Minds, a nonprofit that raises awareness to mental health needs, found that 20% of college students surveyed reported “their mental health has significantly worsened under COVID-19.” Similar conclusions were also reached in a study conducted by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. Nearly one in five students surveyed said they face “constant” anxiety due to the pandemic, and 56% report experiencing at least some anxiety due to the pandemic. Additionally, 21% surveyed reported they were “very anxious” because of COVID-19. At Mercer, Piassick sees the pandemic exacerbating some patients’ fears of the unknown as well as feelings of losing control. The pandemic has also added challenges in fulfilling students’ social needs, increasing feelings of loneliness and hopelessness among some students. “I think it is causing a lot of stress and — for some people — a lot of chaos in them trying to navigate their way to what is best for themselves,” she said. “That’s when people will seek counseling: when things seem out of control and they need to make sense of everything.” On top of that, the removal of breaks last semester caused many students to feel additional stressors as well. “Condensed semesters definitely make things more intense,” Piassick said. “Changes in semesters and not having breaks are hard.” Despite the research showing mental health needs growing as a result of the pandemic, Piassick said that she is unable to say if there has been an uptick in appointment requests. In comparison to other semesters, things are pretty consistent, she said. This is because CAPS does not keep data on the number of calls it receives, Piassick said. Instead, CAPS tracks appointments for regular counseling and intake meetings, where counselors meet with new patients while new patients also get their paperwork in order. As a result, students who decide not to follow through after making that call, either due to the wait time for an appointment or some other reason, are not tracked within those numbers. “Our numbers fall semester 2020 were basically the same as they were in fall 2019 for students seeking counseling. We have not seen an increase in numbers of individuals requesting appointments,” Piassick said. “Now, the 20% that stated they came to CAPS due to stressors related to COVID-19 mentioned above may or may not have sought services if COVID wasn’t an issue.” Additionally, with their staff of three counselors on the Macon campus, CAPS was already largely maxed out before the pandemic, meaning there was little room to add more appointments, Piassick said. “There’s only so much time in a day,” she said. “There’s really no more room to put more appointments.” In recent years, Steven Brown, assistant dean for student services, thinks greater knowledge of mental health issues and more familiarity with counseling services prior to arriving at college has increased demand for counseling at Mercer and other colleges. “The demand for counseling services on college campuses has steadily increased over the years,” Brown said. “Now, students are coming in with diagnosed challenges, are already on medication. And it does not mean they are a greater challenge — it means there is a greater need for individual therapy.” With limited ability to add more appointments, Piassick and Brown have tried to pursue other avenues to address students’ mental health needs: outreach. Before and during the pandemic, CAPS has added new outreach programming and continued improving existing programs to promote mental health and wellness. Wellness Wednesday, an Instagram live series, was launched last semester to teach students about mental health and wellness strategies. For the spring semester, CAPS is working to increase its promotional efforts to make more students aware of the program, Piassick said. Additionally, CAPS’ Sexual Assault, Hazing and Alcohol Prevention Education program is changing, increasing focus on wellness in their discussions of those issues, Piassick said. CAPS has also collaborated with Mercer’s Office of Academic and Advising Services to add health and wellness education into the UNV 101 program, Brown said. Brown said that CAPS and Mercer’s orientation programming are both crucial elements of how Mercer works to retain students. “(There are) students who are gifted, students who are a very vital part of the Mercer community, but due to challenges they face — either on campus or at home — find it difficult to find the balance that is necessary to sustain their learning process,” Brown said. “CAPS plays a vital role in supporting those students so they can continue to work through whatever challenges they face.” Mental health outreach helps CAPS address student wellness with the resources that they have, but Piassick is hoping that the administration will provide additional funding for the center next year. “I think students respond well to student outreach activities,” Brown said. “But at this point, there is still a great demand for individual therapy.” This year, Mercer added another counselor to the CAPS center on the Atlanta campus, and they are hoping to do the same in Macon in the future. Brown “is feeling confident” in funding coming through in the next budgetary cycle, but that still requires approval from the administration. Brown also said they are looking to work with more medical interns and other local partners here in Macon to bolster CAPS’ services. CAPS can be reached at 478-301-2862. There is typically a two-week wait time for an appointment, Piassick said, but CAPS is also able to accommodate emergency appointments for students in need. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidial thoughts, the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) can provide support.
The Mercer University student convicted of violating local COVID-19 quarantine laws in the Cayman Islands was released from custody Friday, but her status as a Mercer student is not yet publicly known. Skylar Mack, a sophomore on the pre-med track, traveled to the Cayman Islands over winter break to visit her boyfriend. She was required to quarantine for two weeks upon arriving on Nov. 27, as all visitors to the Cayman Islands are required to do. Two days after arrival, Mack broke quarantine in order to watch her boyfriend compete in a jet ski competition, according to the Cayman Island Grand Court and multiple media reports. “The anger — the disappointment — it’s all justified,” Mack told ABC’s Good Morning America in a story that aired Tuesday. “I made this mistake. And it sucks, but you did that yourself.” Mercer’s Senior Vice President for Marketing and Communications Larry Brumley said the university did not have a statement Tuesday on Mack’s future at Mercer. “We have no comment at this time on Skylar Mack’s current status,” Brumley said. Mack’s conviction garnered international attention after she was sentenced to four months in prison for violating her required 14-day quarantine period. She was fitted with a tracking device upon arrival to the Cayman Islands and requested that it be loosened by officials. She proceeded to remove the device the following day to attend the jet ski competition, according to the court. “This was as flagrant a breach as could be imagined; it was borne of selfishness and arrogance,” Judge Roger Chapple said, as reported by the local Cayman Compass newspaper. “This was entirely deliberate and planned, as evidenced by her desire to switch her wristband the day before to a looser one that she was then able to remove.” Mack had tested negative for COVID-19 upon arriving in the Cayman Islands but was still required to quarantine for two weeks under the country’s COVID-19 prevention policies. Mack was originally fined $2,600 and required to do 40 hours of community service, according to NBC News, but prosecutors filed an appeal, believing the original decision to be too lenient. The court agreed and sentenced Mack to four months in prison. After that, Mack’s sentence was then reduced to two months. In total, Mack served a total of 32 days in prison. For people sentenced to under a year in prison, a law in the Cayman Islands allows people with those short sentences to serve only 60% of their sentence if they agree to adhere to certain guidelines after their release, Mack’s lawyer Jonathan Hughes told NBC last month. The Cayman Islands, with a population of around 65,000, has only had 381 COVID-19 cases and two COVID-19 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tracking of coronavirus cases internationally. Only 0.05% of the island’s population has tested positive for COVID-19, in comparison to roughly 7% of the U.S.’s population. The Cayman Islands’ government told People Magazine that enforcing “stringent isolation and social distancing policies” is part of how the island is working to keep their levels that low. “Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis in early 2020, the Cayman Islands Government has prioritized the safety of its residents and their protection from the global COVID-19 pandemic,” the government wrote in a statement. “To accomplish this goal the Government employed stringent isolation and social distancing policies.” In the middle of all of the controversy, Mack’s family sought help from the State Department and the Trump administration, arguing that Mack was unfairly used to make an example. “We’re not asking for her to get an exception,” Jeanne Mack, her grandmother, told People Magazine. “We’re asking for her not to be the exception.” In her Good Morning America interview, Mack was asked if she understood why the Cayman Islands’ government might have wanted to make an example of her due to her actions. She said that she “fully” did. Mack acknowledged that she made a “conscious decision” to break her quarantine and could not justify what she did. But Mack said she learned from her actions. “It was a selfish decision. There is no reason that I can give you to grant me a second chance,” Mack said. “I don’t expect people to forgive me, but I ask for people to at least let me show them that I did learn from it.” Mack's boyfriend, 24-year-old Vanjae Ramgeet, was convicted of helping Mack break quarantine, and he was also stripped of his victory at the competition. Additionally, Mack’s attorney Hughes told People Magazine that Mack’s father — a professional jet skier as well — has lost sponsorships because of the attention to Mack’s case. Mack is originally from Logansville, Georgia, which is about 30 miles from Atlanta and around 80 miles from Macon.
During the spring semester, 25 Mercer students were studying abroad in countries near and far when the reality of COVID-19 set in. As the pandemic sent schools into virtual learning and Mercer’s partner universities overseas sent their international students home, Mercer’s study abroad office had a logistical challenge on their plates. “At that time, that was when it really geared up — where students are not sure what to do,” Study Abroad Advisor August Armbirster said. “That’s when it changed for me in my role, where my 8:30 to 5 turned into ‘I’m here for you when you need me.’” The study abroad office was able to get all 25 students studying abroad back to the United State after the pandemic shut down schools across the world, Armbrister said, but it wasn’t without difficulty. For example, the study abroad office had to coordinate with the Moroccan-American embassy, because a Mercer student and their father were stuck in Morocco after commercial flights were canceled, Study Abroad Coordinator Rebekah Anaya said. Another student reported being trapped in South Korea. On top of that, three of the 25 students studying abroad at Mercer partner universities were unable to finish their semesters remotely as a result of the pandemic, Armbrister said. As a result, those students were set back a semester academically. But as the study abroad office had to tackle the challenge of bringing all students home, Armbrister said, they had to orchestrate these students’ return back to the U.S. while working with students’ different time zones. “That’s one of the big changes: making sure that we’re flexible with our schedules so that if they are in South Korea, in the UK, and they text and call us — they’re not going to have that call land on answering machine or a voicemail,” Armbrister said. Overall, study abroad has been greatly impacted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Anaya said, halting most study abroad activity for almost an entire year. Mercer canceled its semester-long programs at different universities internationally for the fall, various summer and fall recreational trips had to be canceled and faculty-led academic programs including Mercer on Mission had to largely be canceled as well, Armbrister said. A few of those study abroad classes this summer, however, still went forward, Anaya said. For instance, a study abroad class to Greece still happened. But instead of physically going to Greece, a travel guide on the ground made videos showing the sites they would normally see. “It’s not the same as being in-person, but it was a nice alternative since we weren’t able to actually go,” Anaya said. Despite the fact that studying abroad had to come to a halt, Anaya said that this is not the first time that the study abroad office has had to deal with difficult logistical matters. The study abroad office has developed some tools to deal with the challenges posed by COVID-19, since they’ve had to do somewhat similar things in the past. “Study abroad in general is used to dealing with crises across the world because we deal in locations all over the world,” Anaya said. “When Zika happened, when Ebola happened, when there is civil unrest, we keep a careful eye on all that.” Anaya said that the study abroad office looks at the State Department travel registry to gauge the safety of sending students overseas. The registry ranks countries safety levels as a one, two, three or four. One and two are where most study abroad programs at Mercer are as those are the two safest levels, Anaya said. On occasion, Mercer will send students to countries that rank as a three, but that is primarily for Mercer on Mission. Level four is a do not travel order. As the pandemic ramped up, the state department increased ratings everywhere to a level four, Anaya said. “We tend to take that pretty seriously,” she said. Due to the spread of coronavirus, the State Department travel safety registry currently ranks most countries as a three, which suggests individuals reconsider travel. But Anaya said that she checks the guidance “pretty daily” to see how the state department’s guidance and many travel restrictions imposed on the U.S. are changing. The ban on travel from many other countries means that faculty-led programs can’t move forward, Anaya said. But students studying at Mercer’s partner universities are allowed to enter most countries, with most having to undergo a two-week quarantine period. With these restrictions constantly changing, the study abroad office is approaching future study abroad plans on the assumption that they will take place as usual, Armbrister said. He noted that their sign-up for their partner university programs are comparable to last year. “It’s pleasantly surprising to see how many people are still interested in studying abroad — both students and faculty,” Anaya said. “Because everyone being in the same place for so long, people are itching to go overseas.” That being said, they are taking precautions, like enrolling students who are set to study abroad at a different institution abroad in Mercer classes so they are not out of luck in the event they get canceled, Armbrister said. “Right now, we are trying to adjust and make dreams that students have had for a really long time happen,” Armbrister said. “Make sure they happen, but happen safely.”
[video credit="Lars Lonnroth" align="left"][/video] Approximately 400 Mercer students, faculty and staff marched through campus Sept. 4 protesting racism and police brutality in Mercer’s first Equal Justice March and Vigil. Afterwards, more than 100 demonstrators gathered in Willingham Hall for a rally and vigil where protest organizers read the names of Black people killed in high-profile instances of police brutality and racism in efforts to raise greater awareness of racism in America. While organizers asked participants not to chant in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, students brought signs with phrases such as “I may not understand but I stand,” “Not a moment a movement” and other messaging. “I’m extremely elated and extremely proud of everyone for standing in solidarity and showing support for social justice in America,” Ansley Booker, director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives and one of the event’s organizers, said. “I think, again, we are always asking our students to be the change they want to see, and I think they are implementing that change.” The demonstration came on the heels of large-scale protests this summer prompted by the killings of Black Americans by the police and others, with names like Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and others taking a prominent place at the protest and vigil. “What we noticed was that students, faculty and staff wanted a place and an opportunity and even a time — like a safe space — to talk about their feelings and their emotions after these things happened this summer,” Booker said. “Because a lot of students wanted to be called to action. They want to do something physical, tangible.” Amid those demonstrations over the summer, a social justice book club formed at Mercer to facilitate conversations about racism and other systemic social issues. The idea for a march and vigil started to become real at the book club, according to co-organizer Carol Bokros in the Office of Academic and Advising Services (AAS). AAS joined forces with Booker’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives (DII), along with a number of other organizations, to organize the march and vigil in hopes of raising awareness and educating members of the Mercer community on racial injustices, they said. “I want all of our students, no matter where they come from and what attitudes they grew up with, to open their minds and hearts and to really listen so that they understand,” Bokros said. “There’s a real problem and we need to fix it.” And beyond raising awareness of police brutality on a national scale, some participants hoped the protest would shine light on racism that happens within the Mercer community. “I hope people understand that it’s not something that doesn’t happen here,” student Atia Bailey said. “It happens here. It’s not just the big events and problems. It’s the microaggressions that will make a situation and make campus unsafe. I think the blatant racism is what people think of as racism but no, it’s the little things.” According to Booker, microaggressions are small acts that make an individual in a marginalized community feel looked down upon, often in the form of backhanded compliments that are based on racial or other stereotypes. For instance, a microaggression would be telling a Black person that they are well-spoken, Booker said, which is based on the assumption that Black people aren’t often well-spoken. On top of bringing more awareness to racism, the march and the rally in Willingham Hall also sought to defend the Black Lives Matter movement and discuss arguments leveled against the organization. “It’s not to say that only Black lives matter,” senior Michaela Jones, of the Student Government Association Merclussion committee, said. “It’s saying all lives do matter — absolutely, I couldn’t agree with that more — but the problem we’re trying to call out is there is a horrible history in our country where we say all lives matter, but the action behind that doesn’t match up.” At the end of the protest and vigil, the speakers also tried to articulate that a demonstration like that is only one part of the puzzle. And from there, there is a need to take action, they said. “I think the young people — Black and white — are frustrated with the situation,” Bokros said. “And they need to talk about it, they need to sing about it, they need to get together and take action. And that is our next step.” The upcoming presidential election also played a distinct role in the speeches given during the rally in Willingham. Moving forward, Bokros said that they are planning to have political action days, where they hope to set up a table and provide students information about getting involved in political action. The rally in Willingham included speakers from a variety of backgrounds, including students, faculty members, student athletes, Mercer’s campus minister, Mercer’s chief of police Gary Collins and others. However, some members of Mercer’s community felt that the rally didn’t go far enough to support marginalized groups, citing the decision to give Mercer Police a platform at an event inspired by a movement against police brutality. Mercer’s chapter of United for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE) released a statement prior to the rally acknowledging that some members felt uncomfortable with the presence of law enforcement at the protest. [pullquote speaker="Ansley Booker" photo="" align="right" background="off" border="all" shadow="off"]I’m extremely elated and extremely proud of everyone for standing in solidarity and showing support for social justice in America.[/pullquote] “We also want to recognize what it means that Chief (Gary) Collins, chief of Mercer Police, will be speaking,” URGE said in a post on instagram. “At the racial injustice forum that Mercer URGE held in June, we heard from students who had experienced racial discrimination from Mercer Police. Others expressed the lack of safety as members of other marginalized (groups). Some students may feel protesting should move beyond negotiation with the police.” Collins was the first speaker at the rally and vigil and he spoke about his policing philosophy. Collins said that 40% of Mercer Police’s force “happens to be African American” and that they “do not want any racial injustice, racial bias or anything like that” in their department. “Before anyone is hired into my department, I tell them my modus operandi,” Collins said. “If you will treat everyone like you would like to be treated — like you would want your loved ones to be treated — we will come up on top. The golden rule heals a lot of things.” Collins noted how he emphasizes Mercer Police’s role as being “your police department” for Mercer students. “We got to come together. We got to quit the divisions,” Collins said. “Let’s correct the errors that have been made. I hate to say it, but my profession — we’ve had some stupidity. I mean that. I can’t speak for all departments, but I can speak for my department. We wouldn’t tolerate that. We won’t have that.” Booker said that they reached out to Collins and let him know about the rally, citing how other marches in Macon have similarly partnered with the police. But Booker said that they invited Collins to give them a space to have this conversation with the police at the table. “Chief Collins has always wanted to make sure that they are in support of all students, faculty and staff on campus at all times,” Booker said. “We want to make sure we shine a light on the differences between those police that are educated and trained and are not using deadly force towards minority groups and those that are willing to learn and have those conversations.” Booker noted that her office has been collaborating with Mercer Police on diversity issues. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives are located on the first floor of the Connell Student Center. [gallery ids="27433,27434,27435,27436,27437,27438"] Editor's Note: This article was awarded a Best of SNO award Sept. 9, 2020.
Mercer University saw an additional 47 positive coronavirus cases during the week of Aug. 28 to Sept. 3, the university announced Friday in its weekly update of COVID-19 cases. The university breaks those 47 cases into four different subsections of the Mercer population: Macon students, Atlanta students, Macon campus faculty/staff and Atlanta campus faculty/staff. In that breakdown, 43 of the 47 cases come from Mercer Macon students, two come from Mercer Atlanta students and two come from Macon faculty/staff. There have been no announced cases among Atlanta’s faculty/staff members so far this year. The 47 total new cases come from a total of 476 tests the university has conducted. These numbers show a 9.87% positivity rate — which indicates what percentage of tests returned positive results. In comparison to the results from last week, the university conducted 1.75 times more tests, jumping from 272 tests last week to 476 tests this week. On top of that, the 47 new cases this week is roughly 2.75 times higher than last week's 17 new COVID-19 cases. The positivity rate last week was 6.25%. Since the start of the pandemic, the university has reported 192 COVID-19 cases. The Cluster will continue to provide updates to Mercer’s COVID-19 numbers as soon as they are made available.
This article is an update to an Aug. 21 story announcing newly-released case numbers. The Mercer University administration announced Aug. 21 that 118 people — 103 students and 15 faculty and staff — tested positive for COVID-19 across Mercer’s four campuses, coming on the heels of mass testing for Macon residential undergraduate students. These tests were conducted before the start of fall semester classes, and students who tested positive did not move into communal campus housing. The 103 student cases also included the 35 students — including 29 student-athletes — who the university announced Aug. 5 tested positive for COVID-19. “The reason for doing all of this was to give us a baseline,” Senior Vice President for Marketing Communications Larry Brumley said. “Before classes started, we would have an understanding of what the scope of positive cases is…. so we can get those students isolated, get them fully recovered as quickly as possible and provide the least amount of disruption for our fall classes.” All Mercer residential undergraduate students were required to be tested for COVID-19 as part of Mercer’s move-in process. The newly released numbers show that, of the 4,229 tests from students that the university received between July 20 and Aug. 19, 103 students tested positive. The additional 15 cases come from 263 faculty and staff members who were tested for COVID-19 from July 29 to Aug. 19. While the 118 new COVID-19 cases documented in the release include positive tests from all four Mercer campuses, Brumley said that many of those cases come from the Macon campus. That is because all undergraduate residential students were required to be tested before moving into their dorms. “Obviously the vast majority of those are Macon-based because that’s the biggest population that we tested,” Brumley said. Brumley declined to break down the case numbers for each individual campus. He said that Mercer Medicine is “fully concentrating” on testing and “less on a lot of granular data” but said that the administration is continuing to refine their reporting procedures going forward. The 118 cases documented bring the total known campus coronavirus cases to 128. A New York Times account published July 29 documented 10 cases from the onset of the pandemic and Mercer’s summer session. Brumley noted that Mercer administrators are meeting daily to discuss the incoming data and new developments and said that it is a “very dynamic environment.” “With our own testing capabilities here on campus, we feel that positions Mercer better than many others to stay on campus and stay on top of this,” Brumley said. “We believe we have a plan in place that positions Mercer as well as anyone to navigate this and deal with this.” The Cluster will continue to publish updates on case numbers as they are made available.
The Mercer University administration announced Friday that 103 students across Mercer’s four campuses tested positive for COVID-19. The 103 positives come from the 4,229 total tests conducted between July 20 and Aug. 19. In addition, 263 faculty and staff members were tested following potential exposure to the coronavirus starting July 29. Of those, 15 tested positive. The university required test results for on-campus, undergraduate students in order for them to return to campus for the upcoming semester. The university noted that they are unaware of any hospitalizations for members of the Mercer community. This story will be updated as more information is made public. This article was updated Aug. 22 for clarity. Read the updated version of this article here: https://mercercluster.com/27373/news/business/update-103-students-15-staff-test-positive-for-covid-19/
A survey conducted by the Student Government Association indicates that 70% of students think a hybrid reopening model — offering a blend or a choice of in-person and virtual instruction — is the best choice for the upcoming Fall 2020 semester. The survey indicates that students are mixed on Mercer’s reopening plans. But it also suggests that many students are unsure if classes should move completely online for the upcoming semester. Bridging the gap between students and administration The survey, which was emailed to rising sophomores, juniors and seniors in late July, was taken by 801 students. The survey asked students to report their confidence in Mercer’s reopening plan, the instructional model that they most preferred and if they would take online classes this fall if given the choice. On top of showing that 70% of respondents thought a hybrid option was the best approach for the fall term, 16% thought fully-online instruction was the best approach for the fall in contrast to 14% of respondents who leaned towards a fully in-person option. “We heard students were really concerned that they felt they weren’t being heard out by the administration,” SGA President Savannah Lackey said. “Our goal with this was to just be able to show the administration what students were concerned about, that they did have these concerns, and be able to bridge that gap and communicate.” Respondents also rated their confidence in the administration's reopening plan on a scale of one to five, with a one indicating a complete lack of confidence in the administration’s plan and a five indicating a high level of confidence. The average degree of confidence was 2.64. “It’s a hard game to play because we’re not going to know if this is going to work until we go back to school,” said Adri Rosario, a rising junior and advocate for an online option at Mercer. “Even taking into consideration just the anxiety people are coming into school with, having such little confidence in the protocol means students are coming to school not feeling safe.” Students share mixed opinions on the reopening plans The survey results come in the midst of fierce debate over Mercer’s reopening plans, with the administration receiving vocal criticism for reopening campus in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The survey, however, provides a more data-driven understanding as to where members of the Mercer community stand on reopening. “From the amount of responses we’ve seen and the support that we’ve seen for the hybrid option, we sort of figured that’s what we’d expect to see in the results,” SGA Vice President Ashton Bearden said. Bearden and Lackey note that they understand the concerns about returning to in-person instruction — with many students feeling worried about more vulnerable students and faculty members — but they believe the administration is taking many precautions to keep students safe. “I know students may not like the answers that are given to them, and that makes my heart sad, but it's just such a hard balance between trying to preserve the real college experience as well as making it completely safe for everyone,” Lackey said. “I think that’s the line Mercer is trying to walk.” Lackey and Bearden brought up precautions like new temperature screening devices, the safety measures Lackey has seen in Mercer’s residence assistant training and the testing of students before they move into their residences halls as evidence that Mercer is trying to adequately respond to the pandemic. Even with the precautions, Rosario is concerned that returning to campus will cause students to feel less vigilant, thus causing them to stop following the guidelines as consistently. On top of that, Rosario does not think it’ll be possible to make the college experience normal and safe. “Everything has changed since March,” Rosario said. “To suggest that that is the goal is sort of denying the reality of what’s going to happen when we return. Instead of trying to make in-person classes something they just are not going to be, it would be better if we spent time over the summer or the time we have left to make online classes as best as we can make it." Students divide on in-person and online options Students were also evenly split when it came to whether they would choose to take online-only instruction if given the choice. Of the students polled, 39% said they would choose to take online classes, 35% said they would not choose online instruction and 26% were not sure. The survey did not ask students what factors motivated their decisions, such as whether they were concerned primarily for their personal health or the health of others. But Lackey and Bearden said that SGA is considering conducting another survey delving into those factors. “It’s not going to be perfect,” Bearden said. “I understand that students are angry, but they are trying to give us the best experience that they can — with where we are at right now.” The Mercer administration did not respond to The Cluster’s request for comment by press time.
As Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms clash over whether local mask mandates can stand, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert vetoed on July 27 a measure passed by the city commission that would mandate masks in Macon-Bibb County. “I truly believe we should do everything within our power to convince individuals to follow all preventative measures to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Reichert told city commissioners in a letter published by WMAZ. “But I believe we have gone as far as we can, legally, to get people to wear their masks, practice socially distancing, avoiding large groups and more.” The Kemp administration has been drawing a firm line that local governments cannot enact measures that go beyond the state requirements, and specifically barring mask mandates in a recent executive order. This has set up numerous battles with local municipalities like Savannah, Athens and most prominently Atlanta. Atlanta Mayor Bottoms and Kemp have been working to find a resolution while eschewing a court battle, but have recently encountered some difficulties reconciling. Many local officials believe that the governor’s actions are politically motivated and inhibit local officials from protecting their residents. Reichert implored local businesses to take appropriate measures to slow COVID-19, with the issue being the legality of mask mandates, his letter to commissioners said. Check back for updates. As of July 27, almost 2,700 cases have been reported in Macon-Bibb County, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Case numbers continue to climb.
Savannah Lackey, rising junior, won Mercer’s Student Government Association’s presidential election by 16 votes on Friday, narrowly defeating challenger Genesis Cooper and clinching victory in the second round of the SGA presidential elections. Lackey won 50.9% of the total votes cast, or 454 votes, and Cooper won 49.1% of the ballots, or 438 votes. Lackey’s victory means she will lead SGA next year, taking over as current two-term president Adam Penland graduates this year. Lackey’s running mate, Ashton Bearden, will be taking over for current vice president Michaela Jones. “I’m so glad to be handing off the reins to Savannah and Ashton because both of them are very qualified,” Penland said. “Both of them are incredible leaders in SGA. I’m very excited to see what they can do, but I'm kinda sad it is coming to an end.” The SGA president and vice president work together to advocate on behalf of students, meeting with Mercer President Bill Underwood once a month and with Dean of Students Douglas Pearson once a week, Penland said. “Every petition that comes up about something, or every concern a student brings to us, we genuinely take that seriously,” Penland said. “We say (to administrators), ‘Look, the students are speaking, this is what they are concerned on. How do we get it done?’” Originally, three individual campaigns were contending for the position. Lackey ran with Bearden as her vice president. Cooper was joined by Sheridan King as her running mate. The third ticket was Kennedy Howery, who ran with Mary-Angel Ekezie as VP. According to the SGA constitution, for a candidate to win, they must secure over 50% of the votes cast. In the first round of election, taking place Tuesday morning and extending into Wednesday evening, no candidates managed to reach this threshold. In the first election, all three candidates were within 42 votes of each other. Cooper received 342 votes, or 35.6% of the total ballots cast. Lackey and Bearden won 319 votes, securing 33.2% of the vote total. Howery and Ekezie won 300 votes, and 31.2% percent of the vote. With Howery and Ekezie winning the least votes, they were eliminated and sent Cooper and Lackey into the second round run off. Following Mercer’s announcement earlier this month that in-person classes were suspended due to COVID-19—causing candidates to return home—the candidate meet-and-greet and presidential debate were canceled. The actual vote totals, however, were not far off from recent elections in SGA history, Penland said. The first round saw 32-33% of student-body participating and casting their ballots. In the runoff, which traditionally does not generate the same vote totals, 28% of the student body voted. “Everyone in the current administration, our election marshall, all of us were expecting a turnout rate of, truthfully, around 15-20% because they are generally that low. They are half of what you see you in a general election,” Penland said. “We were thrilled with the turnout, especially with the circumstances.” The turnout was likely not impacted significantly as most votes in SGA elections happen online, and most of the campaigning for SGA president typically occurs online, Penland said. Penland also noted the considerable online efforts to get students to vote. “We had a great support system from the provost and the IT department to ensure the email got sent out to the entire student body,” Penland said. “Letting Mercer know ‘Hey, we have to adapt to how we do this, but we are still moving forward. We are still having an election.'” Penland and Jones will still continue fulfilling their duties for the rest of the school year, primarily supervising the upcoming SGA senate elections. But a large part of the process as of now is helping ensure a smooth transition in power. “We will all be (in) a Zoom meeting in the next couple weeks,” Penland said. “We’re going (to go) ahead and start training them in what you need to do when it comes to these sort of things, when it comes to the freshman elections next semester.” The upcoming senate race will start qualifications—the prerequisite for standing in the election—next Tuesday and go until Wednesday evening. This will be available online, in both an email sent out by the class presidents as well as being available on the SGA website. Students will cast their ballots April 7-8, with the results being released on SGA social media accounts around 5:30-6 p.m. on April 8. There are 20 seats that are up for election, Penland said. Penland mentioned his sadness with the year ending how it did, but expressed his excitement for the new leadership team for next year. “It has been an honor of a lifetime to serve on SGA for the past 4 years,” Penland said. “It is sad that is how it ends in this way, with classes moving online for the rest of the semester. I’m excited for the future of SGA, and I am sure we have left SGA in capable hands.”
Mercer University’s Student Government Association (SGA) met on Feb. 7 to tackle a wide variety of issues from club funding requests to addressing campus security. This is the SGA rundown. Donation box robbed A student concern was brought to the attention of SGA members at their Feb. 7 meeting after money was stolen from a donation basket in the Connell Student Center lobby, Campus Outreach Chair Sen. Sheridan King said. The incident was brought to her attention by the student spearheading the donation drive, sophomore Maiya Chester. King asked what ways SGA could step in. President Adam Penland said there was little that SGA could do to help refund the student for the money stolen from the donation box, but suggested notifying Mercer Police to have them step in and investigate. The senators discussed a variety of additional steps, including checking to see whether or not there are any cameras that would have caught the incident—there are not, one of the senators noted. They also raised the idea of putting the box in the SGA office at night in order to avoid future theft, which was the option that King brought to Chester. Ultimately, in a message to The Cluster, King said that Chester decided to start seeking donations in person as a result of the incident. King noted that Mercer students are not accurately represented by this incident. “I think that Mercer students are definitely better than this minor discrepancy and lack of judgement,” King said in a text message. “However, there are students like Maiya Chester who continue to set the standard for being a Mercer Bear.” It is unclear what organization the donations were going to support or how much money was stolen in the incident. Campus Safety Chair of the Campus Safety and Improvements Committee Sen. Caylen Johnson drew attention towards the upcoming SGA “Safety Walk”, where senators walk around campus with Mercer Police Chief Gary Collins and discuss how to improve safety on Mercer’s campus. Johnson told the senators that she needed a couple more SGA members to join her on the semesterly efforts to collaborate with the Mercer Police department. A more accessible Mercer Members of SGA recently met with officials in the Office of Access and Accommodations about how they could best use $2,000 to make campus more accessible. This has been, said Penland, something SGA has long been working to hammer out, to not much success—but many of the senators involved seemed optimistic that cool things are happening. Student organization funding SGA members considered two special funding requests, with senators unanimously voting to approve funding to both the Green Committee and the Financial Management Association student organizations. The Green Committee, which works to encourage sustainability on Mercer’s campus, received $1,000 to help finance gifts to help encourage students to come out to events, student organizers said. These gifts include things such as reusable silverware, among other things. The Financial Management Association, a business club, missed the deadline to apply for Bear Grants—which is the source of funding for clubs and student organizations provided by SGA—and so was seeking funding for their operation. They included gifts for things such as speakers, gifts such as pens with the school of business name on it, among other operating expenses. The club received $500 in funding.
To honor the 100th anniversary of women receiving the right to vote, the Georgia Philosophy Society is holding two back-to-back academic conferences at Mercer Feb. 21 and 22. The organizers, Mercer philosophy professors Creighton Rosental and Rosalind Simson, hope the event will shine a light on the issues women still face since receiving suffrage, they said. “Our students need to be aware that this is a milestone,” Rosental said. “It is a good opportunity to think about what has not been accomplished and what problems still need to be tackled. And I think our students — and undergrads in general — are the perfect kind of people to ask those questions.” Rosental and Simson serve as the co-vice presidents of the Georgia Philosophy Society. Last year, they hosted the society’s annual conference at Mercer for the first time in recent memory, Rosental said. With that event going well, they decided to host the Georgia Philosophy Society again this year. Additionally, with the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, they thought this was a great chance to highlight this topic, Rosental said. “At the time that the 19th amendment was ratified, a lot of people thought that this was the big thing — suffrage,” Simson said. “Women could participate in voting for policies and representatives who would represent their views. The 100 years since then have made very clear that there is a huge step in between getting the right to vote and having equality in society.” Unlike previous conferences from the Georgia Philosophy society, this year’s conference will feature two different events — an undergraduate conference Feb. 21 in Knight Hall, and a professional philosophy conference Feb. 22 at the McEachern Art Center in downtown Macon, Rosental said. While the professional conference will be primarily philosophy focused, the undergraduate conference seeks to take an interdisciplinary approach to the topic of women’s rights, Rosental said. “The reason we pitched it as an interdisciplinary conference is that the topic is so interdisciplinary,” Simson said. “If you think about all the ways in which women today are still facing challenges, they are very interdisciplinary—they are in all different areas.” The undergraduate research conference is analyzing women’s rights through the lens of philosophy, history, politics, criminal justice and public health, Rosental said. The speakers are students from schools across Georgia, such as University of Georgia, Wesleyan College, Georgia College as well as Mercer. Rosental said that part of the goal of hosting both students and professors is for those students and professors to see each other’s work. “The hope is that, with the conferences back to back, that some will go from one to the next,” Rosental said. After the undergraduate conference, a free dinner will be provided, which will hopefully be an opportunity to put all of the different talks together into a larger discussion, Rosental said. “With having them all together in the same room, someone may say ‘I see this connection’ and another person may say ‘I didn’t notice that,’” Rosental said. “That’s another reason why we wanted this to be multidisciplinary.” Simson and Rosental said they hope that this starts a conversation about the legacy of the 19th amendment, but people will likely take away different things from the event. “The idea is to come up with some sort of theme — that I think is a super important one right now — and people will take away different things,” Simson said. “I think that is, in a way, what you hope for from an academic conference.” The presenters will talk for 20 minutes about their research, Rosental said. After that, a commentator will ask the presenter questions, and then it will be open up for questions from the audience. The undergraduate conference is set to occur Feb. 21, starting around 3:15 p.m. in Room 210 in Knight Hall. The professional philosophy conference is set to begin around 10 am and ending around 7 p.m. Feb. 22 at the McEachern Art Center. Snacks will be provided, organizers said.
The Student Government Association has selected Senior Magistrate U.S. District Judge Willie Louis Sands to be this year’s Founders Day speaker, scheduled for Feb. 5. “I’m reviewing and recalling the Mercer experience,” Sands said. “It’s an honor. I was surprised, since I had no idea that I would be selected, but I am delighted.” Sands, who is from Bradley, Georgia, started his path to the Founders’ Day stage when he drove past the administration building with his mom as a child. Sands was somewhere around five years old, he said. When they drove past the administration building, Sands asked his mother what that building was. His mom told him that it was Mercer University, he said. At that moment, he told her that he was going to go to Mercer University. There was, however, a problem. “The thing about that,” Sands said, “at the time I would have said that to her, everything would have still been segregated.” By the time he turned 18, the times had changed. Mercer was voluntarily integrated in 1963. When he entered Mercer in 1967 as a member of the third integrated class of Mercerians, his mother reminded him of what he said about his future at Mercer when he was a young child. “It was something I had said at four or five, and then it turns out that when I was 18, I actually went to Mercer and she reminded me that. It was almost miraculous,” Sands said. “I was well aware of the tremendous opportunity.” Founders’ Day, organized annually by the SGA Heritage Life Committee, brings back a successful Mercerian to talk about how their Mercer experience shaped their experience reaching their goals, Heritage Life Chair Alexis Passmore said. The tradition was started in 1891 to celebrate Jesse Mercer’s birthday. “I always find it very amazing and interesting to hear about people who are now super successful in their lives," Passmore said. “It is really cool to know that they came from the school we attend today. It is kind of inspiration and motivation to end up in life like them.” Sands attended Mercer for both his undergraduate and legal degrees,, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1971 and from Mercer Law School in 1974. During his undergraduate experience, Sands studied political science and music. He was also a member of the Phi Mu Alpha music fraternity. Now, for this year’s Founders’ Day festivities, he is coming back to talk to students about his experiences. “Judge Sands is going to bring in his experience,” SGA President Adam Penland said. “That’s what we push Founders’ Day speakers to do.” Sands was a judicial appointment of President Bill Clinton and has been in the federal judiciary since 1994, adjudicating cases in U.S. District Courts for the Middle District of Georgia. Additionally, Sands was also a member of the Mercer Board of Trustees, but finished his third, nonconsecutive, five-year term in November 2019. “That’s kept him connected to the Mercer community,” Penland said. “Obviously he graduated, obviously he has had a very successful career, but he still wanted to give back to Mercer University. So he served on the Board of Trustees for so many years, continuing to help students and continuing to make changes to the University.” Sands was selected from a short list of five candidates, which Penland and SGA Vice President Michaela Jones brought to Mercer President Bill Underwood to discuss, Penland said. Founders’ Day is planned for Feb. 5 in Willingham Hall at 10 a.m. “We really want people to come if they can,” Passmore said. “Just like any other event, you hear some amazing speakers. There’s a free gift; it is always a good one. We are excited to kick off this spring semester and the new year with something like this.”
Plans for a 300-student residence hall geared towards upperclassmen were drawn up last year, but lower freshmen enrollment and other variables indicated that there was likely not enough demand to justify building the facility for the fall 2021 semester, administrators said. “You have to walk a fine line between having enough housing to meet the needs but not having too much housing,” said James Netherton, Executive Vice President of Administration and Finance. “That’s wasted money.” While complete designs were drawn up by the same architectural firm that designed Legacy Hall, the building was not actually officially set for breaking ground. According to Netherton, it was designed so that — if there was a need — there were plans available. “We were trying to design based on ‘what do we think will be the most we could possibly grow over the next several years’ and how can we accommodate those needs,” Netherton said. The idea for the residence hall originated from a summer planning retreat leading up to the 2018-2019 academic school year. There, administration officials decided that they needed plans drawn up for a new residence hall to house upperclassmen, Netherton said. This decision was a response to what Netherton called the “unprecedented” freshman class that entered Mercer in 2018. That year, Mercer enrolled its largest freshman class in its history, so the administration asked: would there be enough housing if the following freshman classes continued to grow at that rate? The answer was no. “When we got to that point, we assessed what was the best solution and we came up with a solution if it was needed,” Netherton said. “Then it is a matter of OK, it might be needed. Is it going to be?” This year, however, the freshman class did not grow at a rate that would have made it necessary to build the new residence hall. While the class entering Mercer in 2019-2020 was the school’s second largest freshman class in Mercer’s history, the university’s modeling suggested that — with this new data — the current on campus housing would meet the demand for the next two years at least, Netherton said. “We want to be able to provide all the housing that our students need but we want to keep the costs down,” Netherton said. “That means don’t overbuild. Don’t get too excited. You’re trying to balance those two. That’s why we decided last May it wasn’t time to start the project.” The design of the project was intended to fill a hole in Mercer’s current upperclassmen housing supply — to provide upperclassmen students an apartment-style living environment with a greater number of community spaces seen in a facility like Legacy Hall, said Jeff Takac, director of Housing and Residence Life. “We were thinking of building something that’s a little more junior-friendly,” Takac said. “We still want to have that (community) in the common space, but in the room you want your own space because you’re a junior and you want your own space.” The project would have taken around 18 months to finish. While over time most of the construction costs would be covered by room and board and donations, Netherton said, it is still an endeavor that requires some foresight. “If you are going to do it, you better need it long-term,” Netherton said. “Once you build that building, it’s going to be around for 50 years, and you’re going to be paying for it for 30. We don’t want to build unless and until we are confident that is going to be really needed. Not just would it be nice to have, not just would it be a great crowning achievement — do we really need it?” These considerations, however, are still ongoing. The administration maintains a complex algorithm that models the expected demand for housing on Mercer’s campus in future years, Netherton said. The algorithm takes into consideration a lot of uncertain factors, Netherton said, such as freshmen enrollment, students transferring in and out from Mercer, the number of fourth-year students who decide to stay on campus as well as a variety of other factors. Depending on what that demand will look like in the future, Mercer may or may not see the building on campus, and what it will look like in terms of size and accommodations will depend both on housing demand and student preferences. However, with possible plans in hand, if they see the need, a lot of the initial work has already been done. “I think it would be easy and quick to pick up because I think we’ve eliminated a lot of the legwork,” Takac said. “The groundwork has been done and now it is ‘are we ready to go ahead and start officially?’”
During October of her freshman year, Willow Stuckey was in the middle of adjusting to the wild world of college. Then, she received a devastating call: one of her family members was placed in hospice care. “I was just freaking out and I didn’t know who to call — I just called one of my section members and they came right away,” Stuckey said. “They ran right across campus.” As a current sophomore in the Mercer marching band program, Stuckey found a support system that helped her adjust to college and get through the issues she was having at home. Considering she did not know many people in her classes or her dorm, this support system was incredibly valuable, she said. “It was just another outlet to help you adjust,” Stuckey said. “It is just another group of people to reach out to that you have an extra connection with.” Stuckey’s experience also reflects the philosophy that Mercer’s director of athletic bands, Blake Garcia, brings to the marching band: band should be a community, not a source of stress. “I want to make it a sort of escape for them — a refresher — to be able to get away from their stressors in life,” Garcia said. While Garcia, as a band director, has to hold the group to a certain level of excellence, he said he wants to make it a social activity as well. Garcia also uses this approach when it comes to band camp. During band camp — when band members move in a week early to prepare for football games — the group went bowling, visited a nearby lake and played laser tag. This helps make their long days of practice more fun, Garcia said. When school starts, he tries to keep it on the relaxed side as well. “It’s one of the more relaxing parts of my day because there is no school work involved,” Stuckey said. That does not mean, however, that the program does not require effort. While many marching bands practice every single day, the Mercer marching band practices only two days a week during the school year. Each practice lasts about two hours. Additionally, the band adds a practice the Friday before home football games. Game days can be full-day affairs. However, Garcia said they still practice much less than many other collegiate marching bands. “I do that so that this does not consume their life,” Garcia said. “I want them to be able to do other things.” The group does not have auditions, and players of all skill levels are welcome. The group works to accommodate students of all marching experiences, he said. Some members have marched competitively, while others have never marched at all. At the end of the day, however, the group has to sound good. “There’s a lot of different demographics interacting; a lot of people from different backgrounds,” sophomore trumpet player Da'Joun Dotson said. “But the expectation is that you’re going to give your all." That expectation is something that Garcia echoed. When they show up, the members are expected to be ready to play, he said. “What it (being a member) means is to have fun but at the same time field a very high-quality production that they are going to be proud of,” Garcia said. “It’s a fine balance.” During football games, the marching band performs at halftime, in between plays and at Bear Walk. The marching band season ends after the last home game of the season.