On the morning of April 16, 2007, I was in my car outside Holden Hall, waiting for a parking space, when I heard what later proved to be gunfire. As I took shelter in the rear entrance to Torgersen Hall, I recall being so very impressed by several cadets who were helping police evacuate students from McBryde Hall. Amid the chaos and ear-piercing sounds of sirens, students potentially were placing themselves in harm's way in order to help others.
Numerous acts of heroism have surfaced, such as the law enforcement personnel who rushed into Norris Hall, the students and faculty who laid down their lives to delay the shooter, and the families and friends who have endured without loved ones. Their actions give strength to us all and epitomize the resiliency of the Virginia Tech community.
It is to this resiliency to which I now turn. Based on research that a graduate student and I conducted, it is clear that Tech's students have adjusted remarkably well. Let me elaborate on how we came to that conclusion.
A major obstacle to behavioral science research is something called the sensitizing effect: Subjects realize they are being studied and modify their behaviors. One technique used to minimize this effect is to record indirect indicators of the behavior being studied. Following April 16, student-authored graffiti on classroom desktops became our study's indicator of student resiliency.
During almost 40 years on the Tech faculty, I was fascinated by the graffiti I found on desktops. In December 2003, this fascination prompted me to work with a graduate student, Daisy Ball, to take and analyze digital photos of some 1,800 pieces of graffiti on 419 desktops in nine Tech classrooms.
Shortly after April 16, I realized we possessed a unique set of benchmark data that gave insight into the campus culture. In August and December of 2007 and May of 2008, Daisy and I returned to those same classrooms (desks are cleaned after each semester), taking photos of some 1,400 examples of graffiti.
Comparing graffiti pre- and post-April 16, we were struck by how noticeably students' thoughts and the themes portrayed in their graffiti had changed. In December 2003, the dominant theme was the university itself (e.g., the letters "VT", the word "HOKIE," and HokieBird drawings). By contrast, graffiti found in August and December 2007 was markedly introspective, sober, and fatalistic. One student, for example, wrote, "neVer forgeT 4-16-07"; another, "Please God help me." Another student drew a sketch of a gun firing a bullet into a human skull. On one desktop, a student wrote, "Why do I always want to cry?" And just below that, another responded, "I know how you feel, trust me, talk to someone." The predominantly positive themes found in 2003 were absent in 2007, when severe depression, frustration, and morbid reflection were more prevalent.
By May 2008, however, student graffiti was markedly more upbeat and less self-reflective. Back were the positive references to Virginia Tech in the form of "Go, Hokies," the Greek letters of fraternal organizations, and the lyrics of pop music.
For me, the takeaway is that while the horrific events of April 16 will never be forgotten, students have demonstrated incredible resiliency and perhaps today have a stronger sense of community than before. Judging from the content of student graffiti, the healing process is well under way.
I chose Virginia Tech because I had heard so much about the community. I wasn't used to large communities, however, so I was skeptical. For a university with more than 23,000 undergraduates, "community" had to be something people just said, just marketing. If it was real, maybe they bonded because the food was so good. Could the quality of food lead to a strong community?
"No, Rhitwika, you are oversimplifying," I told myself.
Upon arrival, though, I began to understand where the university's idea of community comes from. For instance, classes are far from cutthroat. For the first time in years, I felt comfortable enough with my teachers to approach them. I sought to excuse my stuttering, explaining that I was extremely introverted. "Yes," they would say, "I noticed something like that." As I explored topics awkwardly, trying to explain to my teachers just how sincere I am about humanities, sciences, and, really, everything, they would respond with equal enthusiasm. I wasn't an aimless, naïve student; I was an adult, and they let me know that I was doing all right.
Staff members in my residence hall ask students to build community, to ask what community is, and to find interesting people you can talk to. I like to joke that nobody knows if I exist because there are so many students, but people keep proving me wrong. Everyone takes the time to talk to each other, to read each other's blogs, to gather every Friday for soup and tea, and just to be a family.
April 16 didn't factor into my decision to come to Blacksburg, so my experience with tragedy at Virginia Tech is more recent. On Dec. 9, 2011, the Drillfield was a dense cluster of stars in memory of police officer Deriek Crouse, who was killed Dec. 8. Thousands of people holding candles coalesced into a mass, sharing warmth, light, and the humbling sense of a sorrow beyond what could be felt by a single person—the sorrow of an entire community.
Here at Tech, I find people willing to accept me as an individual, and I feel a sense of community despite every assumption I made otherwise: that the university was too large, that the teachers had too much work, and that there were too many students in the dorms. I never could have imagined a place whose people could teach me to trust, to speak out, and to feel. I can barely imagine how many others have been affected like me and how many will continue to be affected. In the purest sense of the word, this place is a community.
Born from the contrast of the horror of April 16 and the acts of compassion and solidarity of the Hokie community that followed, a vision emerged. It was simple yet powerful one: to transform the space of suffering and violence—in Norris Hall—into a place that promotes peace. This vision, held by dedicated faculty and staff members, students, and administrators, resulted in the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention (CPSVP). Founded in 2008, CPSVP is quickly becoming as an internationally recognized leader in the understanding of violence and the promotion of peace. Building on the initial work of Jerzy Nowak, founding director and professor emeritus, CPSVP continues to foster creative approaches to the study and practice of violence prevention by integrating research, education, and outreach.
CPSVP-affiliated faculty conduct research and teach classes on the numerous causes of and potential solutions to the violence that afflicts our societies, workplaces, schools, streets, and homes. Examples of recent research include studying the causes of school violence and the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs in preventing it, the ability of neighborhoods to work with police to reduce violent street crimes, the role of communities in recovering from tragedies and disasters, strategies for combatting terrorism, and the emergence of hate groups in online communities.
This research informs our efforts to educate the next generation of peace scholars, and affiliated faculty teach courses from a variety of disciplines. We offer a capstone course for students interested in peace and nonviolent conflict resolution, and our proposal for an interdisciplinary minor in peace studies is currently under review.
To further our collaboration with researchers from around the globe, CPSVP is holding its second student symposium in November. The symposium is a forum for student-scholars to present research, participate in workshops, and network with world-renowned peace researchers. CPSVP also supports student organizations devoted to building a more inclusive campus community and sponsors public speakers to heighten awareness about the causes of and efforts to reduce violence.
Ultimately, CPSVP aims to build a world in which conflicts are resolved without violence, and the rights of everyone are protected without prejudice or repression.
One night shortly after the 2008 memorial service, I paused at the memorial around 2 a.m. I was the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad's duty officer. Not a single car passed in the hour or so I was there. The events of the past year came flooding back—how close the squad had become, the outpouring of support, and the selflessness of the university community. Only then did it all sink in. Standing in front of Burruss Hall, I shed a few tears—some springing from sadness, perhaps, but more so, pride in the squad and the university.
On April 16, I was one of two officers coordinating the response of 30-plus squad members, 14 assisting agencies, 27 ambulances, and more than 120 personnel who came to our aid. From May 2007 to May 2010, I was the captain, leading a squad that responds to all emergency medical and technical rescue calls on campus—about 1,500 a year.
It was difficult for me to see members graduate and move on, as there were fewer who could share the same memories and heartache. Today, my biggest fear is that the squad will forget what happened that day.
The squad was right in the middle of the response. Our members were the first EMS providers to enter Norris Hall and the last to leave. I knew that the squad's involvement wasn't over on the night of April 16. There would be intense media coverage, after-action reports, and enormous healing. As the incoming captain, I had to look toward the squad's future. I knew that the events would either destroy and dissolve us or strengthen us. We chose the latter—and came out stronger than before.
I saw the resiliency of the Virginia Tech community right away. The outpouring of support was incredible. On April 16, several squad alumni drove to Blacksburg, bringing their experience in post-incident stress management. Care packages and phone calls came in. For an entire year, the station was fuller than ever before. The best medicine for squad members was fellowship and the strength of individual relationships.
Local churches provided emotional support and even food. The General Federation of Women's Clubs of Virginia spearheaded fundraising for an additional ambulance. While I was captain, the squad grew from about 30 to 50 members, tripled the number of personnel with advanced certifications, and increased its budget by 100 percent. Other members and I were able to share the importance of collegiate EMS with peers at national conferences. Reaching out to others allowed us to personify the university's motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
I think it is hard for people who aren't Hokies to understand how the Virginia Tech community could band together and become so much stronger following the tragedy. Hokies carry themselves with a sense that they're blessed to be a part of the family. They're protective, and this notion only increased following the tragedy. Feeling vulnerable, Hokies stood up to defend the university.
There was time for grieving, and there still is. But when I look at where the university is today, I think it is safe to say that the university as a whole did not lose focus of its future goals. Students have led the recovery. They continue to compete to gain admission and join the Hokie community. In the fall of 2007, rescue squad applications were up about 200 percent.
I lost an academic year after April 16, scaling back my class load as I focused on the health and recovery of the rescue squad. I had to retake a few classes. It took me six years to graduate. In hindsight, would I go back and do things the same way? Absolutely.
I'm tremendously proud of how the squad and the university community responded. We have not forgotten those we lost and the survivors, but we have moved forward—perhaps with more fervor than before.
I remember the moments immediately following the events of April 16 and the urgency with which community, campus, and student leaders began to plan the remembrance of those we lost and to help our wounded campus heal.
Driven by a love for our community, we lived our school's motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), during the university's time of greatest need. We accomplished much in a short amount of time: a candlelight vigil with more than 40,000 community members gathered to remember, the ad-hoc memorial created by students, the numerous outlets created for students to honor our lost Hokies, a permanent memorial dedicated, a concert, and more. In the days, weeks, and months following the tragedy, it was so clear what was important.
As we look to the future, the clarity of purpose isn't as pronounced, but the lives we live to honor those we lost, define us most as Hokies. The words I spoke during the April 16 Memorial dedication continue to be the wish I have for myself and for our community: "I hope you are inspired to work harder to honor the 32. Share your talents with the world for the 32. Achieve your dreams for the 32. Be more compassionate, friendly, and thoughtful for the 32. Be better for the 32. ... Most importantly, we must and will move forward, while always keeping the 32 in our hearts and minds. Be strong, stand tall, and live for the 32."