Shattered campus aims for normality

A week after massacre, classes set to resume tomorrow

Virginia Tech Shootings

April 22, 2007|By Robert Little, Bradley Olson and Melissa Harris | Robert Little, Bradley Olson and Melissa Harris,Sun Reporters

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.

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