Ad hoc tribute to 32 victims made of locally quarried stones will likely become permanent.
Doughnuts in the engineering lab each Tuesday help. So do potluck dinner gatherings and gestures from other U.S. campuses. Six months after a deranged student with a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol wreaked havoc on Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State
University’s Charles E. Via Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), it and other programs at the Blacksburg campus are slowly returning to the business of education.
For a department especially hard hit by Seung-Hui Cho’s rampage, life since April 16 has been tough. Participants struggle with the death of a veteran teacher, four teaching assistants and four students who were in the Norris Hall advanced hydrology class that day, the first targeted. They were among the 32 victims. Associate CEE Professor Randy Dymond says his own son, a structural engineering graduate student, would have been in that class if he had chosen water resources for his M.S. specialty. “There’s not a good handbook for this,” says William R. Knocke, CEE department head. “People are trying to find commonality of experience.”
The first day of fall semester and the shooting’s six-month anniversary were hard as the campus was again besieged by media. Many stayed home. “Everyone is still trying to figure out the new normal,” says Chris Strock, a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s construction-management program. He earned a CEE B.S. degree in 2006 and knows, or knew, several people in Room 206. “We need the daily structure,” he says.
A death this month in an unidentified CEE department member’s family rekindled feelings of grief but redoubled efforts to overcome them. Colleagues have filled in to complete research obligations of slain professor G.V. Loganathan. CEE students do chores for his widow and have started new philanthropy efforts, including Strock’s push to raise $250,000 to build a needed community bridge in Haiti. Engineering school accreditors have agreed to delay for a year this fall’s previously scheduled campus visit.
Knocke says this year’s engineering enrollees, even classroom survivors who did not already graduate, have all returned. “They have better days and not so great ones, but they will complete their degrees and move on with their lives,” he says. “Students say they won’t be defined by what took took place on April 16.” Virginia Tech’s overall freshman enrollment is up 10%, Knocke notes. Engineering students make up a quarter of its 25,000-plus student body.
Strock (center) and fellow students bond.
Norris Hall, with critical lab space, is back in use, save for the seven struck classrooms. They are cleaned but remain shut. Only one of 130 students enrolled in a lab course in Norris this semester requested an alternate location, says Knocke. He is part of a university task force to decide future uses of the classrooms. An impromptu campus array of locally quarried “Hokiestones,” named for the school’s football Hokies, will likely become a permanent shrine to victims.
Louisiana State University’s chapter of Chi Epsilon civil engineers’ honor society sponsored nine CEE students and an instructor for a football game in memory of those slain, says Dymond. East Carolina University gave $100,000 at its game. CEE is now mulling uses for $250,000 received from industry and other donors. “There is a better understanding that tomorrow can’t be counted on,” says Dymond. “We’re pushing full speed ahead.”