(U-WIRE) NEW YORK – The beginning of this fall semester has been a particularly traumatic introduction to college for first-year students at Columbia University, with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shaking a city they were only just beginning to call home.
While upperclassmen may already have established the means of support they turn to in a crisis, first-years were faced with events only a few miles away that tested their ability, two weeks into college, to find methods of coping with tragedy. In the days immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center, the University encouraged residential advisers to hold group discussions with first years, and deans at the First-Year Class Center met with many shaken students, but other first-years returned to their daily routines and coped on their own.
Nicki Shaw, the residence life coordinator in charge of first-years in John Jay, Carman, and Furnald Halls, described first-year students’ response to the attacks as “quiet” and “subdued.” She also said “the reaction has been a lot less than what we would have expected.”
Despite subdued reactions on the part of some first-years, many were shaken, especially in the days immediately following the attacks, first-year class dean Temitope Fasoye said.
“All of us (in the First-Year Class Center) spoke with some students who just wanted to know that everything would be OK,” Fasoye said.
The first-years who seemed to be most affected were those who had never been to New York City before.
“I really feel for the students, because some of them are dealing with the transition to New York,” Fasoye said.
Rene Oliveira is one such student.
“Before I came here,” Oliveira said, “I used to joke around with my dad, `New York is the place where everything always happens. It’s the place to be.’ Unfortunately, (this was) not quite what I meant.”
Oliveira said he began keeping a journal after the attacks, and saves newspaper articles about the events, letters like Columbia President George Rupp’s letter to the University community and photographs he took after the twin towers collapsed.
First-years also turned to classmates for support even though many had only known each other for two weeks when the attacks occurred.
“Right after it happened … first-years came together in groups really well,” said Crissy San Roman, an RA in John Jay Hall. “Considering they’ve been here for such a short period of time, they’ve been handling it really well.”
But while some were deeply shocked, other first-years decided they could not dwell on the attacks.
These students decided right away to “move on with life,” Fasoye said, noting that even in the wake of the attacks, the class center conducted business as usual, with students coming in to add or drop classes.
Fasoye noted that other first-years adopted an attitude of “I need to help” and volunteered immediately in the rescue effort downtown.
For some, the attacks felt far removed from their personal lives, despite Columbia’s proximity to Wall Street and Ground Zero.
“It’s not real. I didn’t know anyone who was there,” Jessica Plowright said. “I don’t realize the force of it because I’m not personally involved with it.”
Plowright said said she felt detached from the attacks “even when I saw the cloud of dust” that loomed over downtown Manhattan following the collapse of the towers.
Alanna Kelly said that she felt guilty that the attacks did not affect her.
“I feel bad that it hasn’t personally impacted me, because it was an enormous tragedy, and so many people were touched,” Kelly said. “I feel bad that there’s so much anger in the world, but I am perfectly able to return to my normal life, and I feel guilty about that. I’m damn lucky that I didn’t know anyone there.”
Most first-years found the increase in patriotism after the terrorist attacks moving.
“I think that the country has come together, and all the New Yorkers I’ve seen seem to be more unified,” Young said. “It’s very encouraging and uplifting. I’ve never seen as many American flags in my life as I have on Fifth Avenue in the last couple of days.”
– James Romoser
Columbia Daily Spectator (Columbia U.)