Two ceremonies mark graduation

Challenges: University of Maryland's Class of 2002 reflects on its tragedies and triumphs at commencement.

May 24, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Emily Dammeyer doesn't have the most gilded transcript in the class that graduated yesterday from the University of Maryland, nor does she have the most exotic post-commencement plans.

But in a sense, it would be hard to find a more representative member of the Class of 2002 than Dammeyer, a 22-year-old journalism major from Annapolis. That's because the class will forever be defined by the traumatic events that occurred in its senior year -- events with which Dammeyer had an especially close association.

Dammeyer spent last summer working in public relations for Citigroup, at 7 World Trade Center -- the 47-story building that faced the two main towers and that collapsed several hours after they did. She'd left the trade center job several weeks before Sept. 11, which found her at another public relations internship -- a couple blocks from the White House.

Moments after the attacks, Dammeyer and her colleagues were ordered out of their building, which also housed the Saudi Arabian Embassy. Fearing that the subway might not be safe, she and several friends fled Washington by foot, walking several miles up Rhode Island Avenue toward College Park until a friend met them with her car.

Double prongs

For Dammeyer, the attacks' double prongs -- striking near her former co-workers and near her current office -- jarred her out of what was shaping up to be a enjoyable but unremarkable senior year.

At first, she couldn't believe what was happening was real -- that victims were leaping to their death on the plaza where she had lunch a few weeks before. Later, she had trouble describing her feelings to classmates who lacked her attachment to the trade center.

"For college kids my age, you've heard your parents talk about Pearl Harbor, but we were oblivious to threats like that," Dammeyer said. "This brought it all home to me. I never imagined something that terrible could happen."

It was a sentiment echoed often at yesterday's commencement, where more than 5,000 students received diplomas. As many speakers noted, the year's turbulence didn't stop with Sept. 11 -- the campus was hit by a major tornado that killed two students and the deaths of two students at fraternities. At the same time, it reveled in the unprecedented successes of its football and basketball teams.

"We have all endured our share of tragedy this year, which makes this graduation ceremony all the more joyous," said Nathan A. Chapman Jr., the chairman of the state university system's Board of Regents.

Finding mentors

The day's keynote speaker, Sun editor William K. Marimow, touched on the year's traumas before broaching his main theme: encouraging graduates to be patient and to seek out the advice of experienced mentors in their chosen fields.

"If you're anything like I was at your age, you think you know more about life than you actually do," he said. "It doesn't take a college degree to know that you never learn anything if you're doing all the talking. ... Make sure to find some person in your profession who can help guide you."

For her part, Dammeyer isn't sure where such mentors might be. For a while after the attacks, she was considering applying for Teach for America, in an attempt to do something more meaningful than the public relations courses that suddenly seemed irrelevant to her.

"I found it hard to concentrate," she said. "I thought, `How is this one course going to make a difference? Look at how the world changed in 30 minutes -- is this worth my time?'"

As the year went on, though, things started to return to normal. Dammeyer went to Florida for the Orange Bowl, and eventually decided not to do Teach for America. She's now applying for various public relations jobs in Washington, and plans to visit California for a few weeks.

"You have to say to yourself, `We're strong, we'll get through it, I have to get on with my life,'" she said.

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