Column: The memory of Mollie Tibbetts moves the UI community forward in gratitude

Students at the University of Iowa have dealt with immense grief in 2018-2019 but their perseverance through it all has been remarkable.


Mollie Tibbetts

Taylor Newby and Marina Jaimes

The 2018-19 school year brought many promises to new and returning students at the University of Iowa. But with the promise of a new beginning — ushered in with the semester’s syllabi and countless textbooks bought — came the unparalleled pain of losing a peer, a friend, and a family member.

Only days into the first semester, students sat back and soaked in the sad reality that there would be one fewer Hawkeye enjoying the next chapter of their college career.

For weeks, the country tuned into the story of Mollie Tibbetts, an incoming UI sophomore who went missing for more than a month after a jog in Poweshiek County. The mystery of where and how she vanished gripped the shell-shocked country — and more closely, the Iowa City community.

As news outlets held their breath, law enforcement considered the very little evidence they were left with as hundreds of community members poured search parties across the state — combing through corn fields, gravel roads, and Tibbetts’ hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa.

Her body was discovered on the second day of school in the fall semester at the UI. The reality of her death shook the country with immeasurable grief. And waves of support overwhelmed her small hometown as well as the UI community.

A UISG and Dance Marathon vigil was held in her memory. It included words from her brother: “Make new friends tonight. That’s what she would do — she’d make friends with every single person here if she could.”

RELATED: Organization remembers University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts on her 21st birthday

Tibbetts’ mother also exuded positiveness from the circumstance she found herself in by taking in the child of a Mexican immigrant who worked with her daughter’s suspected killer. Throughout their very public tragedy, the family of Tibbetts gracefully dodged bullets of divisive political discourse, as it would not have been an appropriate reflection of her character.

Those who knew Tibbetts are quick to speak of her warmth — how she captivated each person she encountered with her timeless joy. They speak of the way she cared with unmatched curiosity and genuine interest, determined to learn as much as possible about anyone she met.

And because of her heart and the way her love shaped the lives of those who got the privilege of knowing her, members of her family and community began organizing a movement in her honor.

An organization, Mollie’s Movement: Paying Kindness Forward, was founded by Joy VanLandschoot, a small-business owner in Tibbetts’ hometown of Brooklyn. The movement serves as a method of spreading awareness across the country, working to help communities find other missing adolescents.

And this week, the movement and impact of Tibbetts’ life managed to take a different shape in order to commemorate her family and friends’ first birthday without her.

On Wednesday, Tibbetts would have turned 21. And so, to celebrate her life, the day was dedicated to doing 21 random acts of kindness or donating $21 to the restoration of the Brooklyn Opera House, for her love for the arts, or to the Mollie Tibbetts Memorial Fund for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

As the semester comes to an end and students celebrate what joys summer vacation will bring them, it is important to reflect upon the strength Mollie’s memory has created within the Hawkeye community — a strength that overlooked the anger and frustration everyone felt; strength that overcame hate and replaced it with gratitude for one another.

It is no doubt whether the UI has dealt with an unjust amount of pain this academic year. It is reassuring to see that heartache after heartache, Hawkeyes have persevered because of the spirit ingrained in them.

This lesson in perseverance is perhaps the most indispensable experience that should be taken away this year, more than any course or assignment. We’re all members of the Hawkeye family, and we can make it through anything.