Carlos Polanco and other college students from across the country spoke out in unison to the incoming class at the University of Virginia, encouraging new students not to let fear overshadow optimism, following the violent protests in Charlottesville. (Carlos Polanco/Twitter)

When Carlos Polanco heard that white nationalists carrying torches had marched at the University of Virginia, the Dartmouth College freshman immediately reached out to strangers — lots of them.

“What happened in Charlottesville could happen at any other campus,” Polanco, 18, said. As he saw it, U-Va. just happened to be the place where that spark ignited.

The ongoing national debates over memorials to Confederate leaders, slave-owning Founding Fathers and other historical figures — whether to honor them, remove them or more fully explain them — spilled over in Charlottesville last weekend, when protests turned violent.

Hundreds of people converged to protest the planned removal of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and fights broke out between white nationalists and counterprotesters after a dramatic torch-lit crowd moved through the U-Va. campus chanting, “You will not replace us!”  along with anti-Semitic, racists and homophobic statements.


White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia on Friday in Charlottesville. (Reuters)

As Polanco and other incoming Dartmouth students heard about white-nationalist events planned at other schools, they decided to speak out. In unison.

Luiza Odhiambo (Courtesy of Luiza Odhiambo)

Most of them had never met. But he and another Dartmouth first-year, soon to leave home to launch new beginnings, sparked a group effort to reach out to U-Va.’ s incoming class to tell them they are not alone. They wanted to tell them that people everywhere are rejecting messages of hatred.

“In such a divided world, we must cherish unity without uniformity,” the Dartmouth class of 2021 wrote to U-Va. first-years. “Show the world that you — UVA 2021, an economically, racially religiously diverse class — are stronger for it.”

From one class of 2021 to another, they urged U-Va.’ s new students not to let fear overshadow optimism.

Other first-years followed — members of the class of 2021 at Columbia University, Yale University, Williams College, Pomona College, and Vassar College — wrote letters of support to U-Va.’ s new students, too.

Polanco and Luiza Odhiambo, who met this summer at an orientation program for first-generation college students at Dartmouth, were both stunned by the violence in Charlottesville. They talked and agreed that it was essential to speak out. They asked members of the incoming class if they wanted to send a group message to U-Va. The answer was immediate.

A group of strangers quickly launched an online document, and all began writing and editing the letter.

It was easy, Odhiambo said: One understanding, one message.

Carlos Polanco (Alex Ruchaevsky/Abacus Studios)

“We are stronger together,” Polanco said. “Love will win. Hatred will not.”

They were all coming from the same teetering, uncertain imbalance of the unknown just ahead.

“As a freshman I know the fear of going into college,” Odhiambo said. “It’s pretty terrifying — coming from Dallas, moving to New Hampshire, a completely new area, I only know a few people — I’m changing my whole life.”

So she saw the marchers at U-Va. from that lens.

“The idea of a group of people telling you you don’t belong there — it doesn’t feel right.”

Polanco came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was 5. Odhiambo came from Kenya when she was 6.

“To me, America has always been the bastion of freedom and democracy,” Polanco said. “The America that I know is welcoming.”