Virginia Tech Magazine
Spring 2008

A year later: Remembrance and resilience

A university with myriad identities, Virginia Tech is the home of the Hokies, a center of innovation, an economic driver, and, most importantly, a base for students who want to learn how to make the world a better place. No one ever expected Tech to become the international face of campus tragedy, yet that's precisely what has happened after April 16, 2007, when a tragedy of unimaginable dimensions unfolded.

The prevailing sentiment after the tragedy was that Virginia Tech could not--would not--allow the shooter to triumph. Change, however, has been inevitable.

What, then, is the identity of Virginia Tech today? And how is the greater Hokie community faring in its efforts to move on while keeping its vow to never forget?

After April 16, 2007, thousands of paper cranes were sent to Virginia Tech as symbols of hope.
What has changed?

In the months after the shootings, internal reviews and a state panel provided more than 400 recommendations on campus safety and procedures. On March 19, President Charles W. Steger announced that those recommendations had been divided into 33 priority areas, many of which have already been implemented or are under way.

One of these focus areas, of course, became apparent immediately after April 16: helping students, faculty, and staff to cope. Many sought help at Cook Counseling Center or in the Dean of Students Office. Today, both offices continue to reach out to students.

"The things we hear about are no different," says Dean of Students Tom Brown, "but the volume has changed." For example, 325 students visited the office in fall 2006, including walk-ins and referrals. In fall 2007, that number rocketed to 791 student visits. Students are calling more frequently, too--there were 1,914 calls to the office in fall 2006, compared to 3,496 this past fall.

Brown says that a few reasons underlie these increased contacts with students. Since April 16, students are quicker, he's noticed, to reach the point of stress. "The good news is that students are reaching out for help. It would worry me a whole lot more if they weren't."

In addition, more referrals about potentially troubled students come from faculty and staff, whom he describes as "hypervigilant now--a little anxious or a lot anxious." As a result, Brown says, his office and the counseling center are now "in case management mode." For example, the number of students followed more closely after being either referred by faculty or identified as having issues with multiple departments rose from 41 in fall 2006 to 123 in fall 2007.

To handle the increased concerns effectively, the Governor's Panel recommended that the staff be increased in both Brown's office and the counseling center. Today, there is another case manager in the Dean of Students Office and five staff members have been added to the Cook Counseling Center.

The reports further suggest that addressing potentially problematic students can be strengthened by a renewed focus on the Care Team, which was first organized in the mid-'90s to identify and respond to at-risk students. The panel recommended that the team be more formally recognized and more visible at the university and that its membership be increased. Tech has already implemented these changes. Moreover, Steger created a Threat Assessment Team, chaired by Virginia Tech Chief of Police Wendell Flinchum and comprised of student affairs professionals--including Brown--academic professionals, academic representatives, and legal counsel. The team will "drop everything and meet if something happens," Brown notes.

Another focus area of the recommendations was the Virginia Tech Police Department, which has undergone several changes, including the addition of a deputy chief, a sergeant, an investigator, and six officers, plus two administrative positions. Correspondingly, the mission statement of the police department was changed at the recommendation of the governor's review panel, and the rescue squad now reports to the department.

Tech students at the Duck Pond
The April 16 tragedy didn't just change Virginia Tech--it changed the world of higher education, a shift that Brown noticed firsthand at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators conference last year. "Many breakout sessions made reference to Virginia Tech. Between sessions, everyone saw my Virginia Tech shirt and wanted to talk about [the shooting]. It's very much on minds nationally."

Indeed, campuses across the United States have implemented new emergency plans and safety measures. The new view of security on campus was exemplified by the March incident at Ferrum College when a housekeeper reported seeing a man with a gun on campus. The campus was locked down until police were certain that nothing was amiss. The standard policy now, says Larry Hincker, Tech's associate vice president of university relations, is "communicate first, ask questions later."

Virginia Tech has put several new safety measures in place. Almost immediately after April 16, administrators devised the new VT Alerts urgent notification system for contacting students, faculty, and staff. This system expands the standard on-campus phone and e-mail contacts to text messages to mobile devices, instant messages (via AOL, MSN, and Yahoo), home and mobile phone numbers, and e-mails to non-Virginia Tech addresses. Subscribers list three points of contact, in order of preference, and during an urgent situation, the VT Alerts system will begin cycling through the points of contact, starting with the first preference. If no confirmation is received from the subscriber, VT Alerts will continue cycling through the points of contact until some form of confirmation is received. The system has been successfully tested several times, and 21,000 members of the Virginia Tech community had subscribed as of mid-April. (For more information or for signup instructions for students or faculty and staff members, go to

The university has also installed an improved siren system. Relying on the "Shelter, Shut, and Seek" concept, the siren signals those on campus to find shelter, shut themselves in a safe place, and seek information about the situation. The sirens can be heard across campus and will issue blasts in the case of a security or natural emergency.

Other changes across campus include the installation of locks on all general-assignment classrooms so that rooms can be locked from the inside; similar hardware for 157 other classrooms or labs will be installed before the fall 2008 semester begins. Additionally, the university is moving forward with the installation of small, Internet-controlled electronic signs in all general-purpose classrooms. The signs will double as clocks, but the message can be modified to report emergency or other important announcements as necessary. Finally, access to each residence hall has been secured so that only students who live in that hall can enter. (For more on the complete recommendations, go to

Coping with tragedy

Those directly affected by the shootings--the victims' families and the survivors--remain a priority for Virginia Tech. To ensure their welfare, the university established the Office of Recovery and Support in July 2007. Led by Jay Poole (agriculture education '78), the staff includes case managers and two faculty members from the provost's office.

The Office of Recovery and Support's primary responsibility is to address the needs of the families of the victims, injured students, and others closely connected with the tragedy by providing a central point of contact and facilitating communications between these individuals and the university. Poole says that the highest priority of the office is to maintain communications with the families and students.

Two staff members, Megan Armbruster and Lisa Leslie, still have almost daily contact--by phone, e-mail, or text messaging--with the injured students. "We want to know how they are doing, if they have any academic issues with which our office might be of some assistance, or if there are any concerns or issues related to the events of April 16 where we could help," Poole explains. For example, the Office of Recovery and Support worked with the Department of Athletics, he notes, to arrange for one of the injured students to continue physical therapy on campus with athletics trainers. Overall, he says, the office's goal with the injured students who returned to campus has been "to give them the best possible social and academic environment for them to continue their academic pursuits."

The office similarly maintains close contact with the parents of the injured students. "At the core, the parents just wanted to know that the university was caring for their students, particularly in light of the horror that each of them endured," Poole says. In addition to trying to send a weekly communications summary to these parents, staff members also make themselves available via e-mail and phone.

Finally, undertaking what Poole describes as "some of our most important work," the office has been helping the families of those killed on April 16. "These are the people who lost the most. We tried to communicate with them at least once a week but would sometimes e-mail them two or three times in a week if that was needed," he says. "Our job was to try to provide information to them about the many actions and decisions of and by the university that might have an impact on them, have some relevancy for them, or would just be of interest." Because of the solemn nature of the correspondence, he says that although the word "friendship" might not be applicable, "many in the office have developed a great fondness for a number of the family members. They are wonderful, wonderful people who deserved better."

April 16, 2008, candelight vigil

One function that the office didn't expect was becoming what Poole calls a "fulcrum" for other issues related to April 16. "As the university continues to cope with the ongoing trauma of what happened, our office has become a pivot point for discussions among various on- and off-campus constituencies," he notes. That role has continued to expand over time, such as in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shootings at Northern Illinois University. "We saw the living embodiment of post-traumatic stress disorder," Poole says. "When the families of deceased students and faculty members heard about NIU, many of the great feelings of loss and horror came flooding back to them."

In response, the Office of Recovery and Support tried to help the families reach out to families at NIU who were facing the same horrible loss. Understandably, the survivors felt the same anxiety and sense of pain. "We tried to touch base with every student--including the injured students who had graduated in May 2007--to make sure they were okay," says Poole.

Looking out for the safety and security of so many wounded and grieving people is a staggering task, not one that very many people would relish. Poole, however, says that even though staff members have found the work difficult at times, they all feel that "if any of us did even one thing that helped make the lives of the families who lost so much just a little bit easier, it's worth it."

Set in stone

For many, a strong reminder of the tragedy is Norris Hall. Despite calls to tear down the 70,000-square-foot building, it simply holds too much expensive, permanent lab and research equipment for the university to justify its demolition. Instead, along with continuing to serve as a research facility for engineering students, the building will house the new Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, which will be located on the building's second floor and will occupy the same space as the classrooms where the shootings occurred.

When announcing the location of the center, Provost Mark McNamee said, "Our students will benefit for years to come, and we believe it honors the students and families of those slain on April 16." There also has been talk of a possible minor in peace studies.

The most visible reminder of the tragedy is, of course, the memorial in front of Burruss Hall. Consisting of 32 Hokie Stones--each engraved with a victim's name--set in a semicircle, the memorial was modeled after a tribute created by students immediately after the shootings. In March, Steger announced that this memorial will be the permanent one, now known as the Remembrance Memorial.

Burrus Hall and April 16 Memorial

"Its foundation lies in the emotions of our students," Steger notes, and indeed, its very nature is part of what makes this memorial a fitting permanent site of remembrance. Moreover, it was at this site on the Drillfield--the heart of campus--that the April 17, 2007, and the April 16, 2008, candlelight vigils were held in memory of the victims. "You simply can't replicate that profound sense of meaning, of spirit, somewhere else," he says.

A less visible yet equally important reminder that will endure over time is the Virginia Tech April 16, 2007, Prevail Archives of the University Libraries, which will preserve the tens of thousands of artifacts received from supporters around the world. The memorabilia include thousands of paper cranes, letters, and handmade angels and bracelets; nearly 2,000 banners signed by students and faculty and staff members at other colleges, universities, and organizations; and quilts, memory books, CDs, poems, and other personally crafted items.

University Archivist Tamara Kennelly, who is leading the project, says, "In addition to being a tremendous source of support and strength for the university community, these items are a rich source of material about how we express grief and the effect this tragedy has had on people around the world." Items selected for the collection will be preserved in a climate-controlled environment. Once the archives have been processed in full, visitors will be able to see the artifacts via the Special Collections Reading Room on the first floor of Newman Library. In addition to a permanent collection, a traveling collection will be assembled for temporary display at other venues.

A new sense of Hokie Spirit

Immediately following the tragedy, a sense of community cultivated itself across campus and around the world, an intangible yet very real and vital sensibility that came to be known as Hokie Spirit.

Hokie Spirit was born from the sense of unity and support displayed by Virginia Tech students who were barraged by the media. Hokie Spirit prevailed among faculty and staff members who worked tirelessly during a difficult time to ensure that the tragedy did not force Virginia Tech to its knees. And Hokie Spirit was perpetuated by alumni everywhere whose hearts were back in Blacksburg.

This strong sense of spirit was echoed by countless acts of kindness in response to the tragedy. Condolences poured in by the thousands from people who had never before heard of Virginia Tech and from those who already held the university close to their hearts. Hokie Spirit resonated among the many college and professional athletic teams who sported the VT memorial ribbon on their uniforms and fields, and Hokie Spirit motivated such acts of kindness as the Concert for Virginia Tech, organized by the Dave Matthews Band, in August 2007 and the spring exhibition game with the New York Yankees.

Gestures of support continue to come in, along with the recognition of just what it means to be a Hokie now. In March, the Hokie Nation was named the 2008 Virginian of the Year by the Virginia Press Association (VPA), an honor that is usually awarded to one native Virginian in celebration of his or her triumphs. VPA Executive Director Ginger Stanley said that the Virginia Tech community"“accepted well-wishes and support from around the world, yet it refused to fold under duress."

Not surprisingly, the Hokie Nation responded to the overwhelming international focus and support by becoming even more close-knit. And from this spirit was born VT-ENGAGE, a community service initiative created to honor the 32 victims. The goal of the initiative was to encourage Virginia Tech students, faculty and staff members, families, and friends to pledge a cumulative total of 300,000 service hours before the end of the 2008 spring semester, a goal that alumni agreed to match. Outside the Virginia Tech community, several colleges, universities, and public schools joined the VT-ENGAGE initiative. As of mid-April, more than 400,000 hours of service had been pledged and/or fulfilled.

All known scholarships, memorials, and funds established by both Virginia Tech and the families of the victims can be found online at

Please note that the 32 named scholarship funds at Virginia Tech will be designated according to the wishes of the families, not donors.

Such a feeling of community would not have been possible without a strong foundation upon which to build, says Russell T. Jones, professor of psychology at Tech. Jones, who studied the patterns of coping after such disasters as Hurricane Katrina and wildfires in California, has found that in the months following a tragedy, survivors tend to feel a greater purpose in life or experience increased faith. Proof of this shift can be detected in the way that the survivors of the shootings have handled themselves. Although they were physically and mentally injured, they have moved forward with determination, providing "spectacular examples of what is best about the Hokie Spirit," Poole says.

Brown talks of this same intangible when questioned about how people working at Tech are coping with not only sorrow but also an increased workload and new aspects of university life. "It boils down to that sense of Hokie Spirit," he says. "That's what really helps on rough days--that campus-wide sense of loyalty and spirit."

Needless to say, that Hokie Spirit was powerful across campus and around the world on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. Thousands of students, faculty and staff members, families of the victims, survivors, and other members of the greater Virginia Tech community flocked to the Drillfield, decked in orange and maroon, drawn by the need to remember and reflect upon those innocent students and professors who died on April 16.

The 32 members of the Hokie Nation who were lost that day embodied the best of what the university strives to be. Today, they are at the very core of the new Hokie Spirit, and as we move forward, we will carry them with us. They, and we, are Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech