On February 14, 2008, just nine months after I graduated from college, my alma mater experienced what was, at the time, one of the greatest campus tragedies in the country’s history.
The works below were personal tributes I wrote to a campus community that was morning and healing. These pieces were submitted to the February 14 memorial created by the university and can also be viewed on the website.
Given the many incidents of gun violence in the country today, these pieces feel as relevant 10 years later as they did when they were written.
I was at NIU today to return a book to the library and pick up a few others that had come in. It’s the week before classes start up again for the spring, so campus is quiet. I also took a walk over to my old classroom building to see if any of my favorite professors were in their offices, but it seemed as if nearly everyone had already headed home for the day.
On my way, I passed Cole Hall, the site of the shootings of 2/14/08. It too was silent, but of course that silence was more palpable than anywhere else on campus. Though nothing about the case is unsolved—other than the shooter’s motives, which may never be discovered—Cole Hall has been left a veritable crime scene. No one really knows what to do with it; it would be wrong to ever use the building again for classes, to reopen those tainted lecture halls (renovated or not) and release the Pandora’s box of terror-filled memories. On the other hand, the ever-present higher education issue of classroom space is exacerbated by the removal of two of NIU’s largest lecture halls from use.
So here it sits, empty and untouched. Next to it sits the shooting memorial, which was erected months ago but I had yet to see. Here, five sturdy slabs of gray concrete forever stand inscribed with the names of the victims. The stones’ solidarity, pronouncing “Forward, Together, Forward,” (NIU’s rallying cry throughout the tragedy’s aftermath) reminds visitors of the enduring spirit of a university community pulled together in times of tragedy and of the lasting memory of those now gone. Next to the concrete stands a silver statue: five diamond shapes arranged to look like flames of fire pointing heavenward. They too stand silent witness to the solidarity of the thousands who were on campus that day.
The whole memorial garden is covered in a blanket of snow, much like campus was the day it all happened. I remember the snow from that day because I remember students’ stories about crimson drops and streams of blood in the snow as their terrified peers literally ran for their lives. Then, the snow amplified the horror and coldness of the moment; today, it serves a much different function. Today, the snow is cleansing. With no footprints to soil the purity of it, the snow just blankets the monuments as it blanketed the ground that day. Reminding everyone who passes of the cyclical nature of everything.
Reminding us that, despite it all, time goes on.
Why I’m Proud to Be a Huskie
I of course have been thinking a lot about NIU recently and about what happened there. But as an alumna, I’ve also been thinking about much more than that. NIU to me, unlike to many current or prospective parents of students, is a very real place, full of memories of some of the best times of my life. While people all over the country are defining it by a single tragedy that occurred there, I have always defined it by its people and everything it has to offer.
NIU means the world to me, even still. It’s so terrible that something like that would happen there, especially since, from an Orientation perspective, parents are going to forever more associate NIU with shootings—even though that same thing could happen anywhere their child goes to school.
But the good part about it is that students aren’t seeing it that way. Current students are pulling together and being even more proud to wear NIU attire than they ever were. Students who were once apathetic about their school are now proud to represent something—the ability to overcome.
And it is that ability to overcome that is going to rebuild NIU into something even greater than it was when I was a student. It is something that will take time, patience and heart, but I think a school built on those things is much stronger than one built on winning football teams or award-winning research projects. The school I’ve always loved will have something more than all of its close associates. Maybe it won’t be something tangible, but it will be irreplaceable.
And I think that’s why I am—why I’ve always been—so proud to be a Huskie.