When Brian Adkins was leaving his freshman English class on Sept. 11, 2001, a plane had already hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. Adkins, now a senior, remembered coming back to his room in the Hall on Virginia Avenue and seeing students watching the television in the building’s diner.
“Nobody thought it was anything too serious yet,” he said.
But as a second plane crashed into the south tower around 9:03 a.m., “everyone flipped out,” Adkins said.
Seniors said that during their first days of college, when they barely knew anyone, the September 11 tragedy united them as a class.
“It affected us because it happened in our first weeks of getting to know people, transitioning into a new situation and lifestyle,” Student Association President Omar Woodard, a senior, said. “I believe that the attacks of September 11 had a major effect on our class of 2005 psychologically.”
“Some of my closest friends I met on September 11,” Adkins said. “As a freshman, it made things confusing, but it also united people.”
Many students realized that a national tragedy had occurred by the time the second tower collapsed at 10:05 a.m.
“At that point, Pennsylvania Avenue was packed with cars and people running in the street,” Woodard remembered. “My cell phone wouldn’t work. A friend of mine on my floor could not stop crying because her mother worked in the towers.”
Senior Therese Farmer, who had to stay at Mount Vernon until the evening because students were not allowed to leave unless picked up by a parent, remembered that her mother told her, “Just watch the TV. Don’t turn the TV off.”
Being up to date with the news was important for students as many rumors, such as a supposed car bomb at the Department of Commerce, and allegations that the White House was attacked, were circulating. Many were glued to the television that day, and for many days after the attacks.
Living in Washington made it possible for some to see the attacks firsthand. Woodard said he walked to the Pentagon with some friends shortly after the attacks.
“I have pictures of a burning Pentagon in my photo album,” he said.
Other students lined up to donate blood immediately after the attacks.
Senior Alyx Ackerfeld remembers that when students were finally allowed to leave Thurston Hall around noon, she and some friends went to the Red Cross to donate blood. When they arrived, however, the lines were so long they were turned away.
Annie Judge, senior associate director at the University Counseling Center, said that while many students were shaken up emotionally, the most common response after September 11 was to want to be as informed as possible. She said the newspapers in residence halls were picked up much more quickly than usual.
The Counseling Center offered lectures, group counseling and individual appointments to help students deal with grief and stress. For several weeks, group counseling sessions were held once or twice a day. They were heavily attended at first and discontinued around the end of October, Judge said.
Judge said that those who attended counseling sessions usually connected the tragedy with other problems in their lives. She said an increased fear of flying and worrying about the future were common.
“Whatever it was that one was struggling with, September 11 just exacerbated it,” Judge said.
Classes were cancelled the day after the tragedy, but some professors attempted to conduct class in a “business as usual” fashion when classes resumed.
“My professors didn’t discuss (the tragedy) very much,” Woodard said. “They discussed terrorism, Islam and took a moment of silence.”
As the atmosphere in D.C. became tense, with police and secret service out in full force, many students from less urban backgrounds thought twice about coming to GW; but in the end, few regretted their decision.
Farmer, of Georgia, said that while attacks were a “wake-up call” for her and her family, three years later, she still does not regret coming to GW. She said she has a completely different perception of September 11 than her friends from rural colleges, who did not have to deal with increased security measures or terrorist scares.
“They have no idea what it’s like. They have a completely different reaction,” she said. “I experienced it firsthand.”