Checking in with Peter Gaughan ’21

Gaughan Memorial Scholarship

At home in California during the COVID-19 crisis, student leader Peter Gaughan '21 shares what he’s hearing from fellow students, how he’s coping, and the surprising parts of UC life he misses most. 

You’d be hard pressed to find a student organization or facet of UC campus life that junior Peter Gaughan is not involved with. The government and politics major is a member of the Student Government Association, Gender Sexuality Alliance, Womyn’s Resource Center, Active Minds, Colleges Against Cancer, Model UN, Alpha Phi Omega – and the list goes on. In October 2019, Gaughan was honored for his activism with the UC Alumni Memorial Scholarship, presented by President Laura Casamento and Alumni Council President Betsy Bernabe (pictured above).

As a student leader, Gaughan, who returned to his home in Contra Costa, California when COVID-19 closed UC’s campus in March, is talking to fellow students every day, answering practical questions when he can and learning about the issues they’re dealing with at home. It’s his way, Gaughan says, of helping the UC community stay connected through the crisis.

We talked to Peter about what he’s hearing from fellow students, how he’s coping, and the surprising parts of UC life he misses most. 


Utica Magazine: As a student leader, you’re hearing from a lot of fellow students through this. What are they telling you? 

Peter Gaughan: Students are being pretty affected emotionally; things that they were looking forward to are being canceled, and they’re getting pulled away from environments that they’re more comfortable in. There are a lot of students who can’t fully be the people they want to be when they’re home, so those types of experiences have been tough to hear about. I’ve talked to some students who have to closet themselves for the rest of the semester because school was their safe haven. We’re all going through a lot.

Peter Gaughan
Gaughan at home in Contra Costa, California, this April

UM: What’s on your mind, personally?

PG: There’s a lot of bad here, and you can spend a lot of time wading through it and it can be overwhelming. The thing that keeps me up at night is having auto-immune-deficient family members here in the Bay Area, which is a harder hit area. But I’m talking to classmates in New York City, and they have it much worse. That’s scary. A lot of UC community members live in the places you’re hearing about nonstop on the news. I have been comforted by the fact that a lot of students have been taking this seriously. I know we all heard stories a couple of weeks back about college students not taking this seriously, but I think that’s a small population of outliers, and I haven’t seen that among UC students.

UM: You’re right—the media’s portrayal of some college students’ response to this has not been particularly favorable. What do you wish people knew about your generation?

PG: For the most part, we’re the students who were born into 9/11, lived through the recession, and started this year being concerned about drafts for World War III, and are now facing a pandemic. This is an emotionally exhausted generation that, I think, is doing a really impressive job checking in with each other and staying in tune with each other and the world around us. I’m lucky enough to have a home where I am supported and loved, but I wish I was still on campus, taking classes, and being with my friends. There’s so much good stuff happening on Utica College’s campus, and that is all just on pause right now. As much as you go to college for classes, it’s those events and opportunities that make UC more than just the place to get an education. So it’s been hard because we can start to feel like we’ve lost our connection to the campus, which is another reason why I’ve been so impressed with the UC community’s response and reactions to this.

There’s so much good stuff happening on Utica College’s campus, and that is all just on pause right now.

UM: Tell me more about that. How are students staying connected to campus?

PG: Through individuals or through student organizations or through offices on campus, there’s been a hundred different ways to stay connected to the Utica College community. Everything from goofy social media posts to student organizations saying, ‘We’re still going to have our regular meetings over Zoom, and we’re still going to have our programs, we’re just going to adjust them to the virtual environment.’ We’re doing what we can to bring the community together—residential students, commuter students, online students—in a time when we’re all physically very far apart. It’s something that has kept me going. You’re sitting around kind of distressed or anxious, and my mechanism for dealing with all of that is work. I want to be doing something; I want to be working toward something.

UM: I know the Gender Sexuality Alliance has been especially active during the past month. Can you tell me more about that, and about why it’s so important?

PG: The Gender Sexuality Alliance has a social media forum for daily communication between members, and it has a weekly Google Hangout. We’re mostly just chatting. We’re doing our highs and lows. ‘What has you feeling good right now, and what has you feeling no so great?’ We’re staying in touch with each other and staying a part of each other’s lives. That is something I’ve seen organizations do across the board. On a larger scale, SLCE has done a really good job of having multiple, very active social media accounts. And the Diversity Committee is holding a lot of really good events online, including guest speakers, and just creating a social space where people can go and interact for an hour. Different corners of campus are all working toward creating a shared space where people can engage with each other.

UM: Being part of a generation that’s naturally more comfortable with social media and digital communication, do you think this shift to a “virtual existence” been easier for you and your peers?

PG: I think we’re a generation of digital natives who seem to have been born with an understanding of how to use social media, and there’s an assumption that we live our lives through our phones. And I think over the past month, we’ve found that that’s not true. As much as we’re more comfortable behind a computer or cell phone screen, I think we undersold the importance of in-person communication and getting in touch. I know I’m texting and calling and FaceTiming friends on a daily basis, and that’s not a unique experience. That said, it’s not a substitute. It’s physically and emotionally tiring to be constantly engaging through a digital medium. It’s not as fulfilling.

UM: What have you missed most about being on campus?

PG: A lot of the events that I was looking forward to have been cancelled or postponed, and that was obviously upsetting. But what I didn’t anticipate missing quite so much were all the student organization meetings that I had on my schedule. Weirdly enough, I miss being booked to the tee. As cliché as it is, it really is the small things – it’s walking through the hallway and seeing some of your friends and getting to chat with them for a little bit. I have a whole second family and life in Utica that, unexpectedly, I’m not with anymore. I’m just missing being with people whom I’ve built a life around for the last few years.

I miss the small things – walking through the hallway and seeing some of your friends and getting to chat with them for a little bit.

UM: If you could be anywhere on campus right now, where would you be and what would you be doing?

PG: I would probably be in the Womyn’s Resource Center or the Student Government office doing office hours because that’s where I spend most of my time. But if I was given a choice of being anywhere or doing anything, I would probably be in Boehlert Conference Room with Alpha Phi Omega doing some sort of goofy fellowship where we’d play some crazy, weird game while eating way too much pizza. It’s those types of nights that were always great ways to relax during stressful times and to blow off steam with a lot of your friends. So just being with my UC family and goofing off for a little bit.

UM: Through all of this, can you talk about the good you’ve seen in the UC community?

PG: I like that the UC community has decided that they’re not going to let this crisis get in the way of Utica College being a community. People have still found ways of connecting and staying in touch and engaging with each other even while we’re all so spread out. But also seeing the way the campus responded when we suddenly had to send people home. Faculty, staff, students, administration worked to go, ‘OK, this is happening. What are we going to do to support our students through it? How are we going to pay for plane tickets? How are we going to make sure people’s stuff is safe so they don’t need to be stressed about that? How are we going to make sure students can adjust to online classes?’ From the beginning, the attitude has been ‘No one signed up for this, but we’re going to get through this together.’

That’s been so, so reassuring because it really does feel like no matter what issue you’re having, what concern you have, you have a whole community of people who are there for you. That has been so important with all the other uncertainty happening right now.

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