DURING TRAGIC EVENTS, my mother or I always seem to be in the shower.
In 1989, on a vacation in San Francisco, my mother emerged from the hotel shower at about the same time the Earth's crust fractured and began to shake - an earthquake registering 7.1 on the Richter scale. Ill-equipped for a dark trek down a collapsing hotel corridor, my mother nonetheless went to the closet, got some clothes and eventually made it to safety. My father, very much in touch with his inner Boy Scout, grabbed his two emergency flashlights and supply of extra batteries and led my mother and more than 30 petrified guests out of harm's way.
On the morning of 9/11, I was exiting the shower in my dorm at the University of Maryland, where I had arrived as a freshman only two weeks before. I was wrapped in a robe, bath tote in hand, when an anxious floor mate approached me. "Did you hear? We've been attacked."
I still feel a cold dampness when I think back on that day. With a heavy collection of dark emotions anchoring my stomach, I sat still in my dorm room for the next hour, watching as the horrific images appeared on the TV screen. I had a hard time comprehending the magnitude of the events; the images seemed stolen from a familiar horror movie. Students fluttered about the hallways, stopping in friends' rooms for minutes at a time. No one knew exactly where to be, but everyone knew not to be alone. Ideas and theories began pouring from the troubled and confused minds of those around me. I didn't know whom or what to believe.
Seeking solace, I dialed my dad. At that point in my life, having only lived at home in a small town for 18 years, my information came from a select group of people: namely, my parents. That morning, I didn't want to be bothered with the political ideologies and speculations of my new roommates and friends. I wanted words I could accept as the truth.
The campus population seemed to separate into two distinct groups: those who became hysterical and those who became support systems for the panic-stricken. I believe students' reactions depended on their personality and proximity to the event. For me, inspired by my father's example in the earthquake, staying strong, helping others and moving forward were ways I could prove I was mature enough to be in college.
Before 9/11, I had uttered the word "terrorism" only a handful of times. After the attacks, the word dominated not only my vocabulary but also my state of mind. On the evening of Sept. 24, 2001, I was in a university gym. Suddenly, the building lost electricity, and a section of the ceiling began to crumple. I didn't suspect a construction accident or a weather disaster. I was convinced a second terrorist attack was occurring. I soon learned that a tornado had swept through campus, killing two students and wrecking buildings, cars and trees.
Before the September disasters, my way of defining myself revolved around superficial concepts: my major, classes, activities, likes and dislikes. After surviving those three weeks, I emerged with a better, clearer understanding of my internal composition.
The other freshmen and I reacted not just to a terrorist organization and a funnel cloud, but to ourselves. We triumphed over situations many of us had never fathomed. Instead of debating over a take-out menu or planning a party outfit, many of us spent the first few weeks of college contemplating how to contact family in New York, coordinating emergency sleeping arrangements and preparing for a second disaster.
What we experienced can't be found in textbooks, is not recorded in our notebooks and is not rewarded with academic credit on our transcripts. But it is the true testament of the character we gained in college.
Kristen Bothwell graduated May 22 and plans to move to California and work in entertainment public relations.