Shattered campus aims for normality

The Baltimore Sun

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Eric Del Valle was stretched out in the campus library poring over a self-help book about overcoming stress. It was not for any class that he was reading it, he explained, but to help escape the sadness around him, to "try to return to normalcy."

Students and administrators at Virginia Tech agree that expecting anything normal when classes resume tomorrow, a week after the shootings that left 33 people dead and shattered the final weeks of the spring semester, is unrealistic. The campus is still speckled with makeshift memorials and grieving students, and Norris Hall, in the northern corner of the grassy drillfield, remains riddled with damage and sealed off with yellow tape.

Rather, the school is hoping a return to what bonds the university community together - education - will spur progress in more modest ways, such as getting students to talk again, or even just getting them out of bed.

Del Valle, a 21-year-old engineering student from Roxbury, N.J., thought for a moment about how he'll know when normal has returned, then he dropped his head into his hands and covered his eyes.

"Maybe when I can sleep at night," he said. "When I can go to bed at a normally scheduled time and wake up before noon."

Spring classes, scheduled to end May 2, were nearly complete before the killings, but a week's cancellation and the accompanying emotional turmoil have thrown the educational process off balance, Tech administrators say. Even the mere logistics of holding classes are different now, complicated by such oddities as a lingering police presence, a large classroom building shut down for the rest of the year and 300 or more journalists parked throughout the 2,600-acre campus.

But the emotional turbulence is at least as daunting, administrators say. The school's counseling center has distributed papers to teachers telling them how to identify students suffering distress and how to get them help.

As for grades, university officials have decided to be flexible with students, letting them determine on their own whether to return to class or accept the grade they had earned before the tragedy.

"We're going to encourage them very strongly to continue with their classes, but also to do it within the context of what they're capable of under the circumstances," said Mark McNamee, the university provost.

Some students might not yet be capable of simply resuming where they left off. Many left campus and went home when classes were canceled, and anecdotal accounts suggest that some don't plan to return. Several students said the prospect of walking past Norris Hall, where most of the shootings took place, or West Ambler Johnston Hall, the dormitory across campus where two students were killed, is still too disturbing to contemplate. A music professor told the Roanoke Times he might cancel classes outright, because music just did not seem important right now.

"One of my colleagues told me that 25 percent of her students aren't coming back to campus this semester. They've just gone home and aren't coming back," said entomology professor Douglas G. Pfeiffer, who teaches a pest management class that meets tomorrow. "I hope that's not the case everywhere, because I think it's therapeutic for students to be with the community right now."

Yet that community is clearly a long way from recovery.

Cody Diggs, a graduate student in aerospace engineering, said he has too many research projects under way to consider leaving for the semester. But he needs the work anyway to take his mind off the shootings, which he said have burst the normally buoyant mood of the university town.

"It was such a cheery and friendly atmosphere. Everyone was so tight-knit," said Diggs, 24. "And now it's weird, it's so solemn. That's what's weird for me. That's the disturbing part."

By the weekend, only a few signs of normal university life had crept onto campus. The television sets in the student union had been switched from CNN to soap operas or ESPN, for instance. And state troopers were no longer stationed at each entrance to the campus. Huang Wandi, 23, a graduate student from Hubei province in China, was preparing for a statistical inference exam on the third floor of the campus library, just as she would have at any other time of the year.

More prominent was evidence that life has changed. Satellite trucks still filled the parking lot of the alumni center and around the drillfield, though university officials said they plan to start issuing parking tickets to media vehicles tomorrow. And throughout the campus, students were less focused on studying than on discussions about what to do with the rest of the semester - or their college careers.

University officials have pledged to change that atmosphere.

"We cannot let this horror define Virginia Tech," said university spokesman Larry Hincker.

That may be hard to do, particularly for the many students with direct personal or geographic connections to the shootings.

"Norris Hall, it's a haunted building," said Michael Venturella, 27, a graduate student in ocean engineering from Severna Park. "It'll always be eerie."

Ashley Burris, 19, who lives on the hall where the first killings took place on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston dormitory, said she did not know what she would do about classes, or whether she wants to move back into her floor. Her resident adviser sent an e-mail to students saying, "Right now many of you probably don't want to stay on this floor any longer, and some of you may not want to stay in West AJ at all." That message, Burris, of Yorktown, Va., said, brought it all home to her. She keeps thinking of the small hallway with an elevator and a stairwell, and the four rooms behind it where the bodies were found.

"It's gonna be weird," she said. "Everybody used that stairwell. Everybody's going to be nervous, and I'd still be worried about locking my door," she said. "I don't know if living anywhere else would make me less frightened. I had a sense of security that now is kind of taken away, especially in that hall."

Joe Aust, a 19-year-old electrical engineering student from Westminster who shared a room with gunman Seung-Hui Cho, said that despite his parents' reservations, he has decided to return to Tech today. "I still have to do a lot of work, because I go there to learn, and that's actually what I still want to do," Aust said Friday with calm resolve as he sat in the family room of his parents' Westminster home. Aust, a sophomore, got into Tech on early decision. It was the only school he applied to.

When he returns, though, he will not live in Harper Hall, where he had roomed with Cho. He said the university has agreed to move him into an on-campus apartment.

Although he says it is traumatizing to think that he lived for eight months with a man capable of last week's atrocities, Aust says he plans to rely on his girlfriend, Erin Stebbings, a student at Washington College, and his family rather than the counselors whom Tech is making available to students.

Sarah Saxton hasn't had much time to be shaken. In a 24-hour period last week, Saxton, the outgoing vice president of the student body, had appeared on the Today Show, attended four meetings and slept for 4 1/2 hours, from 2 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. As she sat down for yet another interview in the lobby of the student union on Thursday, other members of the Student Government Association copied fliers advertising yesterday's community-wide picnic on the drillfield, a large lawn in the center of campus.

"Students are talking about two things," Saxton said: "What happened, and their next concern is academics." She praised the administration's decision to let students determine how to complete their studies for the semester. "We all feel a total loss of control right now, and our ability to regain it in this area, which causes us a lot of stress, is important."

Saxton also pondered another of the school's announcements: that it would award posthumous degrees to all of the students who were killed. The first will be awarded at the May 11 graduation. "A lot would say that this will cloud what should be a happy occasion," she said. "But the most important part is not to forget them."

She added, "I knew I was going to cry at graduation, anyway."

There was some apparent normality in Blacksburg late last week - good cheer even. Late Thursday night, the music at the River Mill Map Company Bar & Grill was loud, the ashtrays were full and the melancholy that has enveloped school grounds was seemingly forgotten. Tech students were not talking about the dead or where they were that Monday morning, but about everything else: summers abroad, crashing weddings and the etiquette of co-ed ultimate Frisbee games. The partying lasted well past midnight.

"It was terrible what happened, and yeah, I've been paying my respects, but you can't be doing that forever," said Felipe Mello, 21, a native of Brazil who said he was happy to get out and throw back a few beers.

"I can't change anything about what happened, but I can fix the future."

Sun reporter Laura McCandlish contributed to this article.

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