After his wife was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, Ed Vorbach worked to keep life as normal as possible for his son, who was a senior in high school. His wife would win her battle the following summer, but the family was far from done with the disease.
Two days after his high school graduation in 2009, Ed’s 17-year-old son began cancer treatment. Though the family’s experience helped them know what to do when Kyle Vorbach was diagnosed, Ed said hearing the news about his son was hard because he was so young.
“If I were to go tomorrow, I’ve lived a full life,” he said. “Kyle was 17 when he got cancer. When you’re 17 years old, you haven’t had a chance to even live.”
After chemotherapy and surgery, Kyle, now a first-semester freshman at Ithaca College, has a low risk of relapse. With both his wife and his son in remission, Ed said he can step back and take a breath of relief, but he can’t leave cancer behind.
Ed now works with Wings Flights of Hope, a nonprofit that brings volunteer pilots together to help medical patients get treatment regardless of where they live. Though he attended SUNY-Cortland to become a science teacher and later went on to own part of Next Step U, a college preparatory magazine, Ed said he always wanted to become a pilot. He got the inspiration to attend flight school from a keyboard player he met playing in a band.
Joseph DeMarco, founder and volunteer pilot for Wings Flights of Hope, said volunteers use their own planes and the organization refunds the pilots for fuel. About 25 pilots volunteer for the organization in the western New York area, and thousands volunteer across the country. They sponsor about one mission per day.
“Hope is what we give to a lot of people,” he said. “In their region they’re told there’s not much that can be done for them, so we take them wherever they need to go to get a second, third, fourth opinion — whatever it might be.”
Recently, Ed flew a young family to their 1-year-old daughter’s cancer treatment. The last time the couple drove from Cincinnati, Ohio, to New York for their child, they blew the transmission in their truck and couldn’t pay to replace it.
“I’m 52, I remember what it’s like starting out — it’s tough,” he said. “When something like cancer lands on your head and they don’t have the resources to get the treatments they need for the people they love, that’s the most satisfying thing — I’m helping them out.”
Ed said his 23 years in the military gave him the sense of duty that drives him to help people.
“You have to stand up. Whether it’s cancer or other things in this world, you have to stand up for something, and I stood up as a solider, that’s ancient history, I’ve been retired for years,” he said. “Now I’m going to stand up and do this.”
During the summer after Kyle’s senior year, it became obvious he would not be healthy enough to attend college in the fall. Ed said the family was worried Kyle wouldn’t be able to adjust to college life so late in the year, but the admissions staff set their minds at ease. Bryan Roberts, assistant dean for student services in the Park School of Communications, said he wanted to make Kyle’s transition as easy as possible.
“He’s an exceptional young man, and it helps put all of our issues in perspective,” Roberts said. “When we think we’ve had a bad day, you look at someone like this, someone who’s endured so much with the love and support of his family — it’s really inspiring.”
Kyle said it was difficult to make new friends when most of his class had already established their social groups. His battle with cancer gave him a different perspective on personal health than some of his peers.
“The majority of my semester was at first spent working very hard, then realizing and looking around and thinking ‘Good God, these people treat their bodies so badly’,” he said.
Kyle said it is important for people to value every second they have.
“Even if it’s waiting in line for a milkshake at late night and you’re late and you’re angry, just think about the fact that you’re alive — that’s a really cool thing,” he said.
Earlier this semester, Ed was invited to speak at Relay for Life, held by the Ithaca chapter of Colleges Against Cancer. He said being a part of the event was both an honor and a way to find closure. During the luminaria ceremony, a time when relay participants walk around a dark track lined with candlelit bags to honor the loved ones they’ve lost to cancer, Ed and his wife walked hand-in-hand for 12 laps, one for each year they dealt with the disease.
“My wife and I are just now trying to pull the pieces back together again,” he said. “We put everything on the hold for her and even more so with Kyle, so we’re just starting to go ‘Wow, we can take a breath and look at the world’.”
In April of her junior year of high school, Olivia Rowe brought a plastic bag into a hallway bathroom and tied it over her head to stop her breathing. She thought she wanted to kill herself.
“I had my hand on the stall, so if I passed out the door would open,” she said. “I realized I didn’t really want to die.”
After nearly 20 minutes of waiting in the stall, she left to seek help.
Rowe had emailed her high school guidance counselor for help earlier that year, but felt her therapy program wasn’t helping her overcome her depression quickly enough. She continued to battle depression and began cutting herself after watching an episode of Degrassi, a popular teen drama, which featured a character who struggled with cutting. Now a junior at Ithaca College, Rowe continued to struggle with cutting during her first years as a college student.
Rowe said she thinks people tend to cut themselves for two reasons: Either they have emotional pain they need to get out, or they are trying to distract themselves by thinking about physical pain instead. For her, deciding to cut came from a desire to do both.
“There was one point freshman year [at IC] that I ran laps around my building because I had all this anxious energy,” she said. “I tore up magazines to try to get it out, and nothing worked. I had always known that cutting was harmful, but I didn’t care.”
Rowe said leaving her troubles at home to go to college and having the freedom to act on her own helped her realize that she wasn’t trapped in her difficult day-to-day life.
“The thing that I got stuck with in high school was that I never really saw the better part of life,” she said. “That’s where people who contemplate suicide get stuck, because they don’t think things get better and that they’re always going to live like that.”
Now, Rowe works with the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service of Ithaca to raise awareness about suicide and prevention in the community.
“People who are considering suicide often feel very much alone,” she said. “If you know of other people in that situation, or there are other people around who have gone through that same thing, it helps.”
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, every 14.2 minutes someone in the United States dies by suicide. In 2009 about 36,909 people took their own lives, 4,371 of those dead were between the ages of 15 and 24 years old. But for Rowe, her own suicide attempt isn’t her only connection to the issue. On Aug. 4, 2010, Rowe received a phone call from the sister of her best friend, Brittany Helton, telling her that 19-year-old Brittany had killed herself. At the time, Rowe had been waiting for Helton to text her back so the friends could spend the day together.
“I didn’t know my friend had struggled with anything I had struggled with at all,” she said. “She would make anyone happy, which I found out later was one of the reasons why she didn’t tell anyone — because she felt too much pressure to act the way everyone had always seen her and to be the one who was always full of life and the one who makes everything better.”
Christie Helton, Helton’s adoptive mother, said Rowe and her daughter were like the Olsen twins growing up, “funny and carefree.” Helton was a dean’s list student in college with a family and group of friends who loved her. Helton did not fit the stereotype of a suicidal teen, Christie Helton said.
“It doesn’t just happen to kids who come from a broken home or kids that come from ‘lower class society,’ as they call it, or kids with drug problems,” Christie Helton said.
After their daughter’s death, her parents founded the Brittany Helton Memorial Foundation, an organization that promotes awareness about suicide and honors Helton’s life.
“College kids and high school students relate to younger people,” Christie Helton said. “With the work she’s doing we’re able to utilize her to get through to the kids, telling her own story and telling Brittany’s story.”
Rowe said the shock of losing her friend and standing by as Brittany’s family and friends mourned their loss helped her overcome her own thoughts of suicide.
“Watching everyone go through that pain and thinking, ‘How could she have done this?’ just turned me around,” she said.
Rowe recently developed the project “Unspoken Stories: The Tragedy of Suicide,” a series of photographs posted on Facebook that shows her struggle with losing her best friend to suicide. She said she and her colleagues at the Ithaca prevention center were inspired by a series of Tumblr blogs that told stories of people who thought they had no voice to express their personal hardships through photo strips of them holding signs.
She said the project is part of an effort to make resources more accessible to young people that includes an expanded social media presence and online chat forums.
“People don’t really call on the phone anymore and talk to people,” she said. “So how many are really going to want to call the crisis line?”
Lidia Bernik, associate project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said the lifeline has 152 crisis centers across the United States and works to connect people considering suicide to local resources. Part of this mission is a partnership with Facebook that makes it possible for users to report content they think represents signs of suicide. Facebook administrators evaluate a reported post and send the user information about the lifeline if the content is shown to warrant that action. Currently, the lifeline is running a pilot program that offers professional assistance to people by online chat.
“We feel that there is certainly a role for technology in assisting folks in need,” Bernik said. “It’s just become a very normal means of communication. There is some evidence to suggest that people feel more comfortable disclosing sensitive information via electronic means.”
Though talking about Helton makes some of her friends uncomfortable, Rowe said it’s important that her friend’s memory be preserved and used to prevent other people from making the same painful decisions.
“[My friends] don’t talk about her that much because they’re like, ‘It makes us sad to even talk about the good things,’” she said. “But it’s helpful, and I think she should be remembered.”
At 14 years old, Tenzin Choesang said what would be his last words to his parents for more than a decade and set foot on a three-month trek from Tibet to Nepal.
“Our area didn’t have any schools, most students my age didn’t have an opportunity to study,” he said. “I wanted to learn something, but in my area, there was no chance to learn anything, so I decided to escape.”
While leaving his family was difficult, Choesang said stories of India and a chance to meet the Dalai Lama drove his decision to get away.
He came across the Namgyal Monastery in India, a Buddhist center constructed by the second Dalai Lama in Tibet in the 16th century that was abandoned in 1959 when the Chinese government caused the
Dalai Lama and 100,000 monks to flee Tibet. Later, the refugees reestablished the monastery in India.
Choesang began the traditional path to becoming a monk: long days of studying scripture and philosophy that began in the morning and ended at 9 p.m., unless a monk was behind in his studies. In that case a day could last until 10:30 p.m.
“When we joined the monastery we had more than 40 or 50 students, so every day was competition,” he said. “I really put in too much effort. Sometimes I woke up around 2 o’clock in the morning to start class and memorize scriptures,” he said.
After more than two years and two months of intense study, Choesang graduated from the monastery. He wrote his parents a letter to tell them he had become a monk in India; they had lived without communication for more than 10 years. Without a modern postal service, it took that letter about seven months to reach his parents, who were still living in Tibet.
“When they got my letter they said it was like a dream,” he said. “My father is really sensitive, very emotional. He was crying. My mother is very tough. She never cried.”
Choesang became a teacher at the monastery in India. He said most monks don’t have outside connections and Tibetans who live in the country are very poor, so the monastery didn’t have television or radio.
“Most of us had a difficult time,” Choesang said. “We don’t have any parents or relatives; we just focus on our studies.”
Before he traveled to the United States, Choesang learned to speak English from a New Zealand native who worked at the monastery. She refused to teach the monks to write in English because, Choesang said, “maybe the monks would write love letters.”
Two years ago, the board of directors in India told him it was his time to travel to the Ithaca branch of the monastery to teach
Buddhist philosophy and guide the monastery’s members to lead a better life. Choesang is learning to write in English, but promises no love letters are in his future.
Now, Choesang is the head monk of the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies, the North American seat and personal monastery of the Dalai Lama, located on North Aurora Street in Ithaca.
At the center, he begins each day with an hour of Buddhist practice, leads meditation at Cornell University and then works with the residents who have sought his spiritual advice. A monk’s life isn’t easy, but he says it’s worth it.
“I help people generate more compassion [and] lead a happy life,” he said.
Ngawang Dhondup, administrator of the Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca, organizes the teaching schedules for the monastery and plans the monks’ days. He left Tibet with his family in 1959 to escape a likely death at the hands of the Chinese government to become a refugee in India. His family left with other Tibetans to preserve the Tibetan culture and traditions. Tibetans living near Ithaca gather at the monastery to keep their home culture alive.
“Right now Tibet is being occupied by the Chinese,” he said. “Inside Tibet people are not allowed to speak; there are no human rights. There is no religious freedom. We heard three days back, more than 32 people have been shot by Chinese police.”
The monastery serves as a place for people to come together to express their desires for Tibetan independence.
“It is the responsibility of the Tibetan people, who are staying in a free country, to voice their rights so that the world’s people — especially the United States’ people — can know what is being done by the Chinese government.”
Choesang meets with other local spiritual leaders to help find a connection between the faiths. He said promoting religious harmony in Ithaca and working with people outside the Buddhist community is important because it is one of the Dalai Lama’s messages.
“If we look closely, there are no big differences between Buddhists, Christians and Muslims. We’re the same,” Choesang said. “Every religion tells people how to lead a good life, how to care for other human beings.”
Amy Spenciner, a student at the monastery, said finding the Buddhist community and monks at Namgyal helped her overcome the stress and emotional distress caused by her career as a social worker specializing in emotionally troubled youth.
“I got kind of a sense of peacefulness, but the way Buddhism works is that you really work with your mind and your thoughts,” she said. “It felt very non-judgmental being here, and it felt like what I was looking for.”
Dhondup said the mission of the monastery is to educate rather than change peoples’ opinions, and everyone is welcome.
“To study at the monastery, one should not be a Buddhist,” he said. “It’s not important to change your religion. What is good is to study Buddhism and be good to you friends, your community and your neighbors.”
As then-junior Sara Fitouri stood in front of a class of Palestinian girls, a sudden explosion shook the windows and made her ears rattle. The students continued their work. For them, it was normal.
Fitouri spent the spring of her junior year in Nablus, Palestine, as a volunteer for Teach for Palestine, an organization that provides free English language and sports lessons to Palestinian youth. In that time, she learned to ignore the sound bombs hitting the streets.
She was offered a job with the organization through friends she met visiting Nablus, but wasn’t sure she could do it. As a child in Colorado, she was taught to believe Palestinians were her brothers and sisters by her father, a Muslim born in Libya. But turning away from the traditional path of an American student — getting a diploma, then a job or a higher degree — was difficult because it wasn’t what was expected of her.
“I wasn’t going to have another opportunity to do this,” she said. “Even though it meant telling my mother that ‘Hi, your daughter’s running off into a conflict zone,’ it’s something I knew I wouldn’t have been happy with myself if I didn’t do.”
On her first day of work at the girls’ high school in Nablus, she saw a 20-foot wall with an additional 10-foot-high chain-link fence decorated with ivy surrounding the school building and yard. A security guard stood watch outside. Only women are allowed inside the gates, so the 12- to 15-year-old girls could escape the burdens on Muslim women in the city.
“It’s this incredible free zone where I didn’t have to be worried about what guys are watching me on the streets,” she said. “On the streets, [women] have to be very poised and covered.”
Helen Brooks, assistant director of Teach for Palestine, said some of the female volunteers struggle with being harassed on the street because women are expected to be either at home or work.
“Girls around here, particularly high school girls, are discouraged from playing sports and being confident — all the things Sara really likes and encourages them to do,” she said.
For Fitouri, teaching wasn’t about helping the students build language skills — most of the girls won’t be allowed to leave the country or be able to afford a college degree.
“I had some concerns with what I was teaching them,” she said. “It wasn’t my place to go in and say, ‘Yeah, liberate yourselves,” Fitouri said. “I just wanted to understand, and I wanted them to understand me.”
She said part of getting to know her students was seeing the violence they lived with every day. While traveling outside of the city, she saw 18-year-olds carrying rifles, and the people around her didn’t think twice. She flinched as fighter airplanes roared above of her school, but her students didn’t look. Martyr posters plastered the walls of buildings, and a nearby cemetery was constantly filled with fresh flowers and pictures of children.
“Nablus was hit the hardest during the last intifada,” Fitouri said. “They were massacred, so it’s like you don’t meet someone who doesn’t have somebody dead in their family.”
She said seeing how the money the U.S. sent Israel as foreign aid was used to oppress her students and their families made her question the importance of her work in the classroom.
“It seems so contrite and fake to be like, ‘I taught them English,’” she said. “Who cares? My tax dollars, my own personal tax dollars, have undone any good that I could have done.”
In the classroom, Fitouri taught her students the few American songs she could find that were appropriate for her Muslim classroom. She decided her students would learn “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy.
“Every time they were singing ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ I was forgetting for a few moments the pain I was in or, for a few moments having a connection with them,” she said. “I was the big, strong teacher who would never fail and never fall, and was there to hug them when they needed to cry. I needed that class more than they ever did.”
The day before her three-month visa expired, Fitouri left Nablus. One student gave her a pouch with a Palestinian flag-shaped necklace, and letter that read, “I love you so much, I know you’ll probably forget me, but I’ll never forget you. Always remember Palestine.”
Fitouri said her co-workers, like her, wanted to do something in Palestine other than simply teach English. Some came to escape student debt, some were looking for a distraction after a personal disaster and some were so disillusioned with their country’s policies they chose to leave.
“It wasn’t the satisfaction of volunteering and the ‘self sacrifice’ we could claim out teaching,” she said. “They needed to get away from something or they needed to find something.”
Fitouri’s father, Ezzedin, noticed she had changed when she came home. He said she was more mature and grateful for what she has.
“I can see it in her face that she really loved them,” he said. “I’m so proud of her.”
Fitouri continues her Palestinian adventure on campus as a teaching assistant for Beth Harris, associate professor of politics. She helps to facilitate Skype conversations and shares blogs between students at the college and students from a university in Nablus next to where she lived. The initiative is part of a partnership between Harris and Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, associate professor of politics, which focuses on connecting classrooms around the world.
“When we’re learning, we make assumptions about the given understandings that our knowledge is based on,” Harris said. “Reaching beyond borders creates a greater self-consciousness among the students, both individually and collectively.”
Fitouri said working in Palestine made her see the conflict as more than a policy debate or a foreign issue.
“It’s not this abstract Jews versus Muslims, and Palestinians versus Israelis,” Fitouri said. “As much as people want to declare themselves neutral, if you’re not speaking out against the occupation, then you’re, by default, supporting it.”
As sophomore Ayla Ferrone scrolled through her Facebook News Feed on Monday, she noticed her professor’s son had posted a birthday YouTube video to his father’s wall. She resisted the urge to comment on the video, unsure if it was crossing the line. She did, however, say she would wish her professor a happy birthday.
Left: Sophomore Ayla Ferrone browses her professor Bob Niedt’s Facebook profile. Right: Niedt checks his News Feed. He and Ferrone are friends on Facebook. Graham Hebel/The Ithacan
As social networks continue to encroach on day-to-day life, students and professors are working to clarify the line between Facebook-friending and classroom professionalism. These new online friendships are causing some students and professors to monitor what they post online and are changing Facebook from a strictly social site to a greater networking tool.
Since there is no current policy at the college restricting information shared on Facebook, students and professors must use individual judgment to decide if Facebook friendship is appropriate.
Investigator Tom Dunn said Public Safety only investigates Facebook relationships if someone contacts them with an issue regarding threatening posts.
“We have taken complaints if you were being harassed by someone on Facebook and you reported it to us, but we don’t monitor,” he said.
Ferrone said she hides some profile information from her family but finds no reason to hide it from her professors. Instead, she said she friends professors she thinks will avoid using her Facebook profile against her.
“I really don’t think they care that much, to be honest,” she said. “If they did see it, what are they going to do about it? They may call me out on it, but I wouldn’t become friends with them on Facebook if I thought they were going to get me in trouble.”
Junior Benjamin Jeffirs said it is acceptable to be Facebook friends with professors, but students should be careful to restrict what they post online in general.
“It’s the same guidelines that pertain to any relationship you have online,” he said. “You keep it to things you wouldn’t mind being published.”
Adam Peruta, assistant professor of strategic communication, said he does not accept friend requests from current students. He said he generally does not request former students, even if he knew them well. Peruta said Facebook friendships might mislead students and damage the class environment.
“If a student is friends with a professor and currently in their class, it might give them the wrong idea and think the professor might be a little bit more lenient or there might be an extra connection there that doesn’t exist in the classroom, which most of the time is not true,” he said.
Michael Sturgeon, the faculty coordinator of instructional technology at Lee University in Cleveland researched how Facebook affects college education. His study, “Faculty on Facebook: Confirm or deny?” from March 2009, found faculty were divided over whether or not to view student’s profiles. He said close to 50 percent of faculty surveyed would accept student requests, but not look for personal information about their students.
“We have faculty saying, ‘I can see into my students’ lives and I feel like I can lecture directly to what’s happening in their lives, so it makes my lectures more relevant,’” he said.
Diane Gayeski, dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications, accepts all current and former student friend requests and said she does not post personal information. Instead, she uses Facebook as an efficient way to get news to students.
She said she does not think online posts affect the way she views students professionally.
“I imagine that they don’t care, and in most cases I’m not in any sort of position to treat anyone different or make any decisions differently based on what I see on their Facebook profile,” she said.
Bob Niedt, journalism lecturer and a reporter for “The Post-Standard” in Syracuse, said he accepts friend requests from students and readers but has a personal policy against viewing their profiles. He said he maintains his profile like a professional, not personal, site and responds to student questions rather than initiating Facebook friendships or conversations.
“I have to act professionally as an educator and as a journalist,” he said. “That limits me from having a little fun and interacting with my friends and family as well. … I want to be an example as a professional journalist to my journalism students showing them professional standards.”
Jeffirs said while he doesn’t typically use Facebook to communicate with his professors, he wouldn’t ignore information on their profiles entirely.
“If a teacher I was close with went somewhere really neat I would look at their pictures and maybe comment on them,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve done that but if I wanted to, I would; I wouldn’t feel weird about it.”
However, sophomore Collin Schuck said students should monitor their posts and use Facebook as a professional tool.
“In college, you’re at a point in your life where you’re old enough to make your decisions,” he said. “You’re making connections with people in your field so I don’t think it’s inappropriate. I draw the line when you’re there to discuss personal life.”
Instead of using Facebook to communicate with professors or stay up-to-date about their personal lives, some students and professors are seeing a growing opportunity to keep in touch with each other throughout their careers.
Jeffirs, who is Facebook friends with his theater arts professor Jack Hrkach, said he noticed Hrkach’s former students rely on wall postings to keep Hrkach informed about their work.
“It helps to stay in contact after the class ends,” he said. “A lot of alumni still write on his wall about what they’ve been doing and stay in close contact with him. That’s probably one of the main benefits.”
Nicholas Walker, assistant professor of music performance, accepts current students as friends on Facebook. He said he works with students closely in class or in lessons and does not think social media crosses a professional boundary because it is already so open.
“I conceive of Facebook being a very public forum,” he said. “I would never post anything on Facebook that I wouldn’t say publicly at school, and I don’t think students would, or should, either.”