Branford ’11 aims to move beyond rocky start to year

This was not the Yale they saw in the glossy University brochures. Nor was it the Yale presented during the guided tours of campus.

“Vanderbilt’s cursed,” joked Adam Begley ’11. “It’s a horcrux.”

Branford College’s newest crop of students — residents of Old Campus’ Vanderbilt Hall — did not expect members of their class to be confronted with multiple student-safety crises in the first two months of their collegiate careers. Since the beginning of the term, one freshman received death threats, another withdrew from the University shortly after these threats surfaced and a third was hospitalized after a hit-and-run car accident. University administrators said students have, for the most part, managed to make the shift to normalcy, but freshmen said they still have lingering concerns about their safety.

And they are still looking for closure.

In an interview this week, Branford Master Steven Smith said he cannot think of another time when a college’s freshman class faced so many difficulties so soon in the year. But as the students in Vanderbilt finish up midterms and look toward the Harvard-Yale football game this month, Smith said he hopes the “bad luck of the draw” is over.

In the last week of September, a student in Vanderbilt’s entryway B received a series of death threats and had his room ransacked. A week later, his roommate withdrew from the University for medical reasons. In mid October, Andromahi “Mahi” Trivellas ’11 was critically injured after being hit by a car.

It was an especially harsh introduction to Yale, both for the freshmen and new Branford dean Daniel Tauss. But even Smith, in his 11th year as master, said no amount of experience could have completely prepared them for the crises.

“Even though I’ve been master for a long time, there’s always new things that happen that you’re not prepared for,” he said. “As soon as you think you’ve seen everything, you’re wrong because something will come up. It’s a crazy thing.”

It has been three weeks since the last incident occurred involving a Branford freshman, and time has allowed some nerves to be soothed. But the shock of the past two months still persists. Unease remains, as do questions about the administration’s handling of the crises.

“The whole atmosphere for the first couple of weeks was kind of bizarre,” Branford freshman Harry McNamara ’11 said. “They didn’t tell us anything. We had no idea what was going on until after the fact.”

McNamara and his peers said they would have appreciated more information from administrators but understood the need for secrecy, given the privacy interests of those involved, the sensitivity of the incident and the potential harm to the University’s reputation.

During the first incident — the death threats in Vanderbilt — Smith said the administration strove to keep students informed of what was happening but did not want to distress them unnecessarily.

“The danger when you send these things out is you don’t want to make people more alarmed,” he said.

But the administration’s silence left a vacuum of information that was quickly filled by hearsay. Rumors started to spread. Something about a slashed mattress. Blood on the walls. A shattered iPod and a smashed computer.

And given the shortage of official information, many students feared the worst — and wished for an open, timely administrative response.

Students who thought the perpetrator was likely a Yalie said they were surprised that a member of the College would threaten violence against a peer.

“We’re at Yale — you don’t expect these kinds of things to happen here,” Mathew Andrews ’11 said. “People try so hard their entire lives to get here, you expect they’d be level-headed and know how to interact with their peers.”

The victim of the threats was afraid to sleep in his own bed and has since been relocated to a room in Branford College, although Smith said the student does intend to return to Vanderbilt at some point.

Students in other suites also said they feared for their safety. One freshman, who asked to remain anonymous, said he slept on his friend’s floor because he was scared of sleeping in his own room.

The constant police presence around Vanderbilt did little to calm students, many of whom believed the vandal lived inside. Those students who thought the victim’s roommate was responsible for the threats said they were disappointed that the administration and the police would allow him to remain in the dorm.

Students who wanted to avoid worrying their parents decided not to tell them about the death threats. But those freshmen’s parents who knew what was happening frequently called the Yale Police Department demanding answers.

Students said they sought reassurance from their freshman counselors, who began to feel overwhelmed.

“[My freshman counselor] was so stressed out,” Patrick Moran ’11 said. “I could see it in his face.”

Freshman counselors approached declined to comment, citing the need for student-counselor confidentiality.

The freshman counselors worked with Tauss to reassure the students in Vanderbilt by offering both group and individual meetings for students and sending frequent e-mails urging caution.

In an e-mail, Tauss said he has been “impressed and touched” by the support students have lent one another under ”what could have been very trying circumstances.”

In spite of the Branford administration’s efforts to allay students’ concerns, many freshmen interviewed said word of the death threats disrupted their social lives and distracted them from their schoolwork. Many spent hours discussing the incidents with Tauss and their peers — often forgoing problem sets so they could camp out at the dean’s house until past midnight.

A week after the vandalism started, the victim’s roommate withdrew from Yale College for medical reasons, Smith told the News in October. The withdrawal also took the community by surprise, particularly because many said he had made a place for himself within Branford’s freshman class.

“I thought, ‘Wow, his number’s in my phone. That’s so strange,’” said Begley, who knew the student from the Yale Society for the Exploration of Campus Secrets.

Those who considered the student a friend said he told them he had broken into the tomb of Skull and Bones and shown them video footage to prove it. He also showed them books he had stolen from Scroll and Key and had chalked the word “Dauphin” on walls throughout Yale’s campus.

The student, reached on his cell phone, declined to comment.

For a week and a half after the roommate’s withdrawal, it seemed as though life would return to normal for the Branford class of 2011. But the tumult had hardly had a chance to subside when Trivellas was hit by a car on the early morning of Oct. 14.

Trivellas’ classmates who were out Saturday night said they were concerned when they heard the ambulances scream toward the corner of York and Elm streets. Wossen Ayele ’11 said he remembered seeing a gold stiletto shoe in the street.

But it was not until later that they found out the victim of the car accident lived in Vanderbilt.

Trivellas sustained four skull fractures, fractured vertebrae and a concussion. She was hospitalized at Yale-New Haven Hospital for 14 days while her condition improved from critical to fair and is taking the rest of the semester off to recover at home.

By the time Smith sent official word of the accident in an e-mail, most students already knew about the hit and run, either from reading the News or hearing accounts from friends.

But Smith said the administration had to balance privacy concerns with the public’s need to know when deciding how much information to release. The hit-and-run differed from the previous Vanderbilt incidents because other students were not at risk and because word spread among Trivellas’ friends and teammates quickly, Smith said.

“We handled them the best we could do,” Smith said.

Despite the string of bad luck that struck the Branford community, students said they found comfort in the supportive structure of the residential college system.

And Russell Kuwahara ’11 said while the events of the fall still cast a shadow over Vanderbilt Hall, its residents are ready to move on.

“It’s kind of over and done with,” he said.

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