Hope Is an Action

August 6, 2020

Summer 2020 Issue of Wellesley magazine 

Smiling student in profile holding red rose

Beset with fever, chest pains, and shortness of breath, Rana Zoe Mungin ’11 was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Yet, despite the classic COVID-19 presentation, she was refused testing—perhaps it was a panic attack, one provider suggested. Days later, she was back, struggling to breathe. She died on April 27, after a month-long battle.

I am heartbroken—not only for Rana Zoe’s family and friends but also for the world so in need of her extraordinary gifts.

A first-generation college student, Rana Zoe was a fierce advocate for the vulnerable and disadvantaged. A gifted writer—she received an M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts—she once wrote: “It’s not anyone’s fault that they’re rich, but it’s always a problem when you’re poor.” At the time of her death, she taught social studies at a Brooklyn charter school. “To think of the books she would have written, and the students she would have mentored: It’s truly devastating,” mourned one Wellesley faculty member.

This singular tragedy points to troubling larger truths. The fact that our health care system is ill-equipped for the realities of this moment. That what you look like—and who you know—may go far to shape the care you get. Our health system too often gives short shrift to women and people of color. Rana Zoe was both. Would she have met less skepticism—been more quickly tested—if she’d been a white man? That we will never know, but we do know this: Black Americans account for a disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths and infections.

News of Rana Zoe’s death quickly rippled through the Wellesley community, sparking both sorrow and anger. It followed weeks of efforts by Wellesley alumnae to get Rana Zoe better care—efforts that her sister credits for drawing attention to her case.

“Her Wellesley alumnae really stood with me in this struggle and this fight,” Mia Mungin told CNN. “Without them making such an outreach for help, I don’t think that I ever would have received any help for her. Honestly.”

It’s often said that Wellesley alumnae are the most powerful women’s network in the world, and that power shines through here. When the health system threatened to fail Rana Zoe, you sprang into action, using all the resources at your command to get her better care. You lived out the words of our Latin motto Non Ministrari sed Ministrare—Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.

These efforts did not change the outcome, but they nonetheless point us forward. COVID-19 is laying bare the injustices that plague our communities, even as the virus plagues our bodies. How can we seize this moment to advance the common good? How can we best honor Rana Zoe’s memory?

So many of you are already living your answers to this question. You are on the front lines of health care—as doctors, nurses, EMTs, public health officials, and volunteers. You are reinventing organizations to meet the demands of this moment. You are building stronger communities, through Wellesley and far beyond. You are teaching now-virtual classrooms filled with the next generation of leaders.

As I write these words in May, it is hard to know what next month will look like, let alone next year. It is hard to make concrete plans.

But what we can do—what we must do, each and every day—is to choose hope. In the words of Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59, writing in the New York Times: “It might do well for us to view these abnormal days as an opportunity to ask more of ourselves, to reflect on our relations with one another, and think critically about improving the social, economic, and political structures that shape our lives.”

It’s often said that love is an action. The same is true of hope. Hope was manifest in this community when it rallied around Rana Zoe. Now, we must show this same power as we step up as citizens. May we find ways to act in hope for the greater good—to remake the systems that failed Rana Zoe and so many countless others.