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New York City
October 2001

On Campus at Columbia University: Responses to Tragedy
By Marie Holmes

On the morning of September 11, Columbia University students were in class. They were on campus. They were on their way to work. They were in their dorm rooms, asleep. Then two airplanes hit the World Trade Center in what has been the gravest terrorist attack in U.S. history. Televisions and radios were turned on and telephones rang all across campus as the news spread and students frantically attempted to contact friends and relatives.

Within forty-five minutes of the attacks, University President George Rupp had called an emergency meeting to discuss the University’s response. “By 10:30AM,” says University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis, “we were all gathered talking about how we could respond to the needs of our students, our faculty and our staff.” The first priority was finding ways to get important information out to the Columbia community. By the end of the day, a kiosk had been set up in the center of campus where students could read President Rupp’s statement and receive information about the events being organized on campus, support services, how to give to the Red Cross and where to donate blood. In only several hours, the Chaplain’s Office had organized an interfaith prayer service that brought hundreds of community members together in the chapel that evening. At midnight, students gathered to hold a candlelight vigil in honor of the victims of the day’s tragic events.

University officials made the difficult decision of resuming classes on Wednesday, September 12. Classes seemed a natural place for students to come together to discuss the tragedies. “It was clear,” says Chaplain Davis, “that classes would not be normal, but that it would be one opportunity to enlist the support of our faculty.” Most classes did use their time together on Wednesday to hold discussions. Julia Gavrilov, a senior at Barnard College, says that all of her professors, even those in disciplines seemingly unrelated to the events, opened up discussion. “More people joined in [class discussions] than usual,” says Gavrilov, “Obviously, this is something that hit everybody.” Steve Theberge, a sophomore in the School of General Studies, described his classes that day as “especially poignant and meaningful.”

In the wake of the disaster, students, staff, and administrators showed an outpouring of support. Barnard College students began making and selling red, white and blue ribbons to raise funds for the Red Cross. The University launched an emergency fund-raising drive, converting the box office at the student center into a donation site.

Members of the University community have reached out to each other . Student groups, professors and administrators have all addressed concerns about backlash against certain ethnic and religious groups. President Rupp issued a statement expressing the University’s condolences to those directly affected by the tragedy and affirming Columbia’s commitment to diversity, tolerance and productive dialogue: “we must work against ethnic or religious stereotyping and intolerance... we must take special measures to counter hateful speculation or harassment directed against Arabs and Muslims... It is unacceptable at Columbia to stigmatize entire peoples and traditions.” Chaplain Davis and many others feel that this was an important message to send to the community, as now, perhaps more than ever, “It is important that we all feel safe together.”

The University President concluded his statement in saying, “To reach out and to work together to build communities that bridge divisions in our pluralistic world is a challenge worthy of the core values that Columbians over the generations share.” Looking at the efforts of the past weeks, it seems clear that the Columbia community will continue working to effect positive change, even in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. As one professor said at the beginning of her class on Wednesday, September 12, “The best way to combat ignorance and hatred is education, and we need to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Marie Holmes is a senior at Columbia University and an intern at Education Update.


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