When COVID-19 forced the Furman Student Government Association’s newly elected members to be sworn in virtually on April 27, incoming president Griffin Mills ’21 assumed that would mark the end of pandemic’s effect on his time in office. Like so many of us, he was wrong of course, but that has only made Mills more determined to help the university and his classmates have a successful 2020-21 academic year in the face of unprecedented adversity.
“It’s scary, because when we left in March we thought it was going to be a few weeks or the rest of the semester, and now I’m on month five of ‘I haven’t gone to a restaurant’,” he said. “I’m just going to step up to the challenge. It’s what I signed up for, so I’m ready.”
The immediate agenda for Furman’s 50th SGA president couldn’t be clearer: Do everything possible to keep people from contracting and spreading the novel coronavirus. The university sent students home in the spring to prevent possible infection, and the decision was made in June to reopen campus for in-person classes in August only after the implementation of a myriad of precautions to prevent exposure.
The Furman Focused: Fall 2020 website lists all of the policies and procedures that have been put in place to increase safety, and Mills thinks the best tool he has to encourage his classmates to follow them is keeping focus on light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s hard because we’re young, and this is our one chance at college. But the way I look at it is, yeah, the fall is going to be different, but if we want to be back in the spring, if we want to have time left with each other, we need to be smart,” he said. “This fall especially we all need to come together as a community and be a united front … There are a lot of incentives to do well.”
Nothing is more important than everyone wearing masks inside or when social distancing is not possible. That doesn’t just apply to campus, Mills said, and he’s been working with other SGA representatives as well as student leaders of other organizations to keep driving the message home.
“Our role will be to encourage our friends to say, ‘Hey, let’s not go out downtown. Let’s be smart,’” he said. “It’s awkward to speak to someone my own age and act like I know more or something, but we need to remind ourselves that we’re leaders and we need to step up to the plate.”
Mills and the other fourth-years arrived on campus last week, shortly after first-year students moved in Aug. 12. As part of Furman’s phased reopening, second- and third-year students will be able to move in Sept. 11-13. The first day of class was Tuesday, Aug. 18.
The class of 2024 consists of 529 students representing 37 states, 10 countries and a myriad of academic and personal accomplishments, including one Bollywood dance instructor, one owner of a wood-chopping business and one who helped raise over $100,000 for cancer research.
The middle 50% of incoming new students had an unweighted GPA ranging from 3.4 to 3.9, SAT scores between 1260 and 1385 and ACT scores between 29 and 32. Two hundred and thirty-eight were National Honor Society Members, 185 captained athletic teams, and 21 were Eagle Scout/Gold Award Winners.
Fifty-seven percent hail from Georgia or one of the Carolinas, while 59% are female. Not including international students, diversity is represented in 22.7% of the class.
A sustainability science major from Massapequa Park, New York, Mills ended up at Furman when he decided to visit campus on a whim while touring schools in the South. In high school, he was his freshman, sophomore and junior class president before losing the election as a senior, making his victory in March even more sweet.
“It’s kind of like a comeback story for me, because I lost my senior year of high school,” he said.
Mills also served as the Furman freshman class president before two years of study abroad left him unable to participate in student government. And while the COVID-19 pandemic is his top priority, Mills also wants to address racial justice issues that moved to the forefront of the national conversation with the death of George Floyd in May and have been highlighted by students and alumni sharing negative experiences over the summer on social media.
His first action was to call in the rest of the SGA executive council and work with the Furman chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Director of the Center for Inclusive Communities Deborah Allen to craft an email that was delivered to the student body.
“To our black students: You are heard, seen and valued. We, as the Student Government Council, are committed to ensuring that Furman is a safe and welcoming home for you. Despite our physical distance at this time, we stand next to you in solidarity and we are committed to actively fight racism. The challenges and responsibilities of this movement do not fall solely on you,” the message said in part, while also including a statement from Qwameek Bethea ’21, president of the Furman NAACP chapter.
“The Black at Furman Instagram was eye-opening for me, since I’m a white man. I’ve never experienced anything like some of the things that were posted, but it gave me a lot to think about, like, ‘How can I represent a student body where a large portion of them don’t feel comfortable?’” Mills said. “A big part of the race issues is we really need to have dialogues where students can learn about others’ experiences.”
Mills has done extensive volunteer work with the New Washington Heights Community Association in Greenville, South Carolina, including creating and directing a youth summer camp, and he hopes to work for a nonprofit after graduation.