Letter from campus: The news from Blacksburg

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.


On a rare, sunny April morning that had followed a lot of unseasonably cold ones, I sat in my office at the magazine thinking about our student advisory board. I had convened them a few evenings before, and, munching pizza and arguing amiably about cover art and feature content, we’d had our usual lively discussion about things Notre Dame.

The subject that most animated the board, whose members offer the magazine an inside look at students’ preoccupations and interests, was dorm life and whether the installation last autumn of cable television and wireless Internet access in every dorm room had crushed or had improved social and academic opportunities. Some said casual conversations and gatherings to watch favorite shows were disappearing, or at least moving out of hallways and section lounges and into students’ rooms: a possible social loss. On the other hand, their peers countered, it’s easier now to study with classmates and laptops in comfortable settings. Point, counterpoint, back and forth, no firm conclusions: I had let them talk while I made notes.

Reviewing those notes that morning over coffee at my desk, it struck me how busy students are and how technology enables what must be record levels of perpetual engagement. We can communicate anytime with anyone we like, or so it seems. Of my roster of 25 student advisors, only seven had come to the meeting, though I’d scheduled it weeks in advance. Eight were studying abroad; a few wrote in to say they had other commitments. Others never responded to their email reminders, and I started to wonder whether email, which emerged as the hot communications technology during my undergraduate days, is now passé. Plenty of students don’t bother to check it.

Then again, I thought, maybe that’s just spring at Notre Dame: 10,000 students with their heads in 10,000 bubble-wrapped places. Visitors to campus often remark on how students today walk and talk, not in chatty groups of friends so much as alone and on a phone. They’re making plans, scheming, commenting, getting things done. Even their idle chatting has a mobile urgency to it. These frantic activities of the paradoxically hyperconnected and disconnected corporate world have seized their place on college campuses, Notre Dame’s as much as any other.

News of a shooting

Such were my thoughts when I spoke on the phone that morning with a friend from my home state of Virginia. Brian, who is active in Catholic campus ministry programs, lives and works in the northern part of that state. Every other Wednesday he drives nearly 200 miles each way to visit Catholic students at Virginia Tech. We talked about crazy Easter weather, I gloated that my Orioles were up a game on his Yankees for at least one day, and then the conversation turned serious. He’d heard a few minutes earlier from Paul, a student at Tech, that police were investigating a murder in a dorm. One dead, one wounded, and a few kids jumping out of windows to get away from the gunshots. Brian had been getting ready to drive down with a priest for a routine visit to students. When we hung up the phone, it must have been 10:30. I checked a few news sources, which reported a shooting on the Blacksburg, Virginia, campus.

Neither of us knew that at that moment the apparent dorm murder had exploded into a mass shooting. An email sent to several friends later that day from Paul, the Tech student, acknowledged the magnitude of the violence, thanked friends for their prayers and noted that he was on his way to the Newman Center to see whether anyone needed someone to talk to.

Where I come from, the increasingly prosperous and numbingly busy Fairfax County, Virginia Tech is the school. I’d guess that 100 students from my high school class went there. I chose the University of Virginia, Tech’s smaller rival cousin with the older history and the supposedly flashier pedigree. Thousands of graduates from both schools flood the job markets in Fairfax and Washington, D.C., each year, and you can’t help but know people from the other school by the dozens. You work with them, you sneer at their stupid bumper stickers, you chuckle openly when your school takes the Commonwealth Cup at Thanksgiving.

For so many friends, those university rivalries evaporated on April 16. As the hours passed that painful week, we all absorbed the details of what had happened and, far more important, to whom it had happened. Before the newspapers published victims’ names, my mother heard that a young woman from her parish was among the dead. Later I read about a freshman from Annandale High School, where my kids would have gone had we not moved to South Bend last year. The gunman—a young man so straitjacketed in his own personal hell that the only choice he could envision was to inflict it upon others—grew up in Centreville, a mass of townhouses and shopping centers through which you have to pass if you’re driving your son or daughter from your Fairfax County home to Tech or U.Va.

Poor Centreville, I thought. The last news I associated with that burb before our Midwestern exodus involved another distraught young man, a walking manifestation of anger and confusion who had opened fire in May 2006 on a county police station, killing two officers and freezing practically all traffic west of Washington during the evening rush. He, too, was dead before it was over.

Feeling far away from home, identifying with this horror as a friend, as a parent, as an expatriate Virginian, as a human being, I wondered how it was affecting students in my new community at Notre Dame, who had their own reasons to connect with it. I turned to the students on the advisory board.

We’ve all heard about the widespread altruistic impulses of this generation, sometimes called Millennials, sometimes “Generation Next.” I’m skeptical of these labels, though I’m often impressed by the generosity and energy of people younger than me. But, my God, think of what they’ve grown up with. The grand, often effective, save-the-world crusading of these beautiful and capable kids exists in tense parallel with small pockets of a deadly psychosis that is unleashed at unpredictable moments with ever-greater destructive power.

Notre Dame students react

The Notre Dame students’ cheerful ruminations on dorm life and technology, community and connection, offered just a few evenings before, now seemed painfully relevant. They had come of age with Columbine and took the same emotional body blow delivered by September 11, 2001, as the rest of us. Their childhood experiences were shaped by hundreds of small, subtle decisions that reflected their parents’ growing alarm about random assaults on their safety and welfare. They lived their adolescence in the yellows, oranges and reds issued by the Department of Homeland Security. This nightmare is chaotic and terrible, a constant reminder of our powerlessness.

The students I talked to, I can say with relief and gratitude, still have a firm grasp on their hope and their humanity. A few wrote back to say they were stunned; some said they felt personally attacked. A few advocated tighter campus security, others dismissed it as useless. One lamented the desensitization of the country and then showed he wasn’t the slightest bit desensitized. Another elaborated on her anger at the failure to notify students and lock down the campus before the initial murders turned into a mass killing. Maybe that’s when it hit me: We can communicate anytime with anyone we like, sure—except when we really need to.

On campuses around the country, talk turned to how to quickly and credibly convey emergency warnings when emails were so obviously ineffective. Automatically generated phone messages? Instant messaging? Notre Dame plans to launch an emergency announcement system that will send messages directly to the cell phones of students who have put their numbers in a University database. Still, how do you grab the attention of thousands of people and tell them their lives are in danger when they’re puzzling over a foreign language or thinking about lunch? Will their cell phones be on? Will their numbers be current? Don’t instructors always ask students to turn phones off?

Another one of my student advisors offered a suggestion reminiscent of the mid-20th century: a special campus-wide alarm system tested monthly at the same time as the tornado sirens. She and others were fighting off thoughts of gunmen walking into their classrooms in much the same way Seung-Hui Cho did when he snuffed out the lives of German instructor Jamie Bishop, sophomore Caitlin Hammaren and Liviu Librescu, the 76-year-old engineering professor who had survived the Holocaust and that day reminded his students that life is beautiful by blocking the door and giving them a few extra seconds to leap out the windows to safety. Professors and students, women and men, an Indonesian, a French Canadian, a pair of Indians, American peers of every ethnic background: 32 people killed and nearly that number treated in hospitals for wounds they will never forget.

Even before the dark details of the killer’s life were published, his lurid video broadcast on the evening news, his nightmarish writings posted to websites and his actions traced in regularly updated detail, some students were ready to look at his human face, wondering what it might have taken to help him, how far back in his life the damage was done, whether there might be anyone at Notre Dame in similar straits, whether their cherished campus and community might someday suffer the ugly scars now under reconstructive surgery at Virginia Tech. Could it happen at Notre Dame? If you ask the students, yes. There is no safe haven, here at Father Sorin’s school or anywhere else.

It’s not clear whether anything could have helped Cho, least of all in the days before he woke up prepared to kill. But if there is any possibility of a resurrection from this death, it must lie in his generation’s readiness to cling tenaciously to its kindness, its capacity to love and forgive and celebrate its humanity.

The day after the news broke, Keri Mikuska, a junior on the advisory board, offered this reflection: “We, as students and members of an academic community, I think, become easily caught up in classes, deadlines, meetings, and exams, and in this whirlwind that is most of our semesters, we may not reach out to others as much as we would like to. I know that when I’ve got a lot going on, I get in a ‘zone’ and walk between classes with my head down, trying to sort out my day and my life. I don’t say hello, I don’t smile at others. I think we all need to assess our daily routines and think of how we live our value-systems each day.”

Junior Kyle Cyr, writing in from his semester in Santiago, Chile, put it simply. “I think we as society just need to wake up and take a better look at not only how we’re raising our children and teaching our students, but how we’re treating the random kid we pass on the street.”

UVa tradition

There isn’t a campus in this country that respects and lives traditions with more fervor than Notre Dame, but my alma mater has to be a close second. One University of Virginia tradition is painting Beta Bridge, a squat, graffiti-smothered thing on the road connecting university grounds to the fraternity houses. You’re supposed to leave your own mark on Beta Bridge at least once during your undergraduate career, typically with a group of friends representing one student organization or another. When I opened an email from a fellow Cavalier the day after the shootings and its attachment showed that students had already painted Beta Bridge in Virginia Tech maroon and orange, I nearly cried. Rivalry on indefinite suspension. It was the perfect expression of one university community’s soul feelings for another.

At Notre Dame, where it’s much more difficult to find people with personal connections to Virginia Tech, that spiritual connection reverberated in the prayers emanating from the quiet of the Grotto and in the Mass celebrated April 17 in the basilica. Hundreds of students streamed into the church, filling the chairs behind the main altar and crowding the entrances. It was a simple Mass of consolation and hope, and a profound demonstration of the students’ solidarity with their grieving brothers and sisters who at that moment were gathered in candle-lit prayer vigils held far away in the hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Mileage doesn’t matter,” Father Pete McCormick, CSC, ordained the previous Saturday, pointed out in his homily. In the wake of this kind of devastation, “We do not grieve without hope. . . . We here at Notre Dame must be a community with hope to bring.”

Outside, I bumped into a student from the board, one who hadn’t responded to my email query. He apologized, said he couldn’t write about the tragedy. A senior engrossed in final papers and a job search, he had transferred from Tech after his freshman year. He knew one of the victims; he had learned this earlier that day. He recognized my orange-and-blue striped tie, a U.Va. holdover I’d worn to the Mass in tribute, regretting the lack of maroon in my wardrobe. He smiled briefly. The Mass, he said, hadn’t brought him closure. I thanked him for his openness and tried to offer a few hopeful words of my own, but found my wisdom well run dry. I knew he, like those friends he made at Tech, like his Notre Dame family, would find anew their courage and resolve. Just maybe not that day.

John Nagy ’00M.A. is an associate editor of this magazine.