The days leading up to Erik Roberson’s college graduation next month are now far less joyous than he’d originally anticipated.
Roberson is a senior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. There, a single gunman’s shooting spree on the morning of April 16 killed 33 students and faculty.
“This event has put a dark cloud over what should have been a celebration of my last five years,” said Roberson, a 2002 graduate of Rochester’s McQuaid Jesuit High School, who acknowledged that he personally knew two students who died.
The rampage marked the most deadly single shooting incident in modern United States history. It started with the killing of two people in a dormitory, West Ambler Johnson Hall, and resumed two hours later in a classroom building, Norris Hall, where 31 more people perished. Among the dead was the attacker, Cho Seung-hui, a 23-year-old student who committed suicide. Many more people were injured.
Roberson said he knew one female victim who was a friend of a fellow service-fraternity member, as well as a male victim who was in Roberson’s group last summer when he served as a freshman-orientation leader. He declined to name either deceased student out of respect for their families.
“I continue to thank God that during this tragedy none of the people in my immediate circle of friends was injured,” he said.
Roberson, who lives only about a half-mile from Norris Hall, said he had to pass the facility on the way to an April 16 student-organized candlelight vigil attended by more than 10,000 people.
“Walking by the building was hard for all of us, but it’s something that we’re going to have to do in the days that come,” he said April 18. “I’m glad that the first time I had to do it, I was with all of Virginia Tech. The mood on campus is somber and sad.”
That mood spread to the Diocese of Rochester, where prayer services took place on area college campuses and students visited Web sites set up for offering prayers and condolences. In addition, a memorial service for Mary Karen Read was scheduled for April 20 at St. Anne Church in Palmyra. Read, 19, who had several relatives in the Rochester area, was a freshman at Virginia Tech. She was attending class in Norris Hall when Seung-hui opened fire.
“Obviously all of our prayers are with the (Virginia Tech) faculty, students and staff,” said Shannon Loughlin, diocesan director of young-adult and campus ministry. “It is just so sad for the people in Virginia. I know it will have an impact on our campuses in this diocese.”
A quick response occurred in Geneseo, where the doors were opened at St. Mary Church on the evening of April 16 so people could come in for prayer. Mike Sauter, Catholic campus minister at SUNY College at Geneseo, said dozens of students turned out despite the short notice and cold, rainy weather conditions.
“Keeping vigil speaks to the deepest needs of the soul at this time,” Sauter said, adding that during the afternoon he had received a call “from a student who’s never called me at home before. She said ‘Mike, what are we doing?’ Being the Newman Community, she thought we should take the lead.”
Sauter observed that SUNY Geneseo is in a small-town setting not unlike Virginia Tech, so “students here really identified with their brothers and sisters down there. There was a sense of innocence — ‘how could it happen there?’ Really, it could happen anywhere.”
“It’s just kind of a shock. (Thirty-three) people is a lot of people,” added Mike Andromalos, 20, a sophomore engineering major at Cornell University in Ithaca.
Andromalos, an active member of Cornell Catholic Community, said he has friends from Franklin Regional High School in Pittsburgh who attend Virginia Tech, including one in the dorm where the shootings began. Andromalos managed to receive word that all his friends were unharmed, but found communication difficult because phone lines were so jammed on April 16.
Numerous reports have described Seung-hui as being noticeably disturbed in the weeks leading up to the attacks. His outburst has raised concerns about the safety of college campuses and the mental health of students. For instance, Andromalos said a friend recently remarked to him, “Think of the people here that snap all the time, with all the pressure at Cornell.” He added that he knows a number of such young adults at the Ivy League school.
“Especially at a place like this, kind of a competitive atmosphere — even if you don’t put pressure on yourself, everybody else is telling you ‘you need to do this to succeed,'” Andromalos said.
Loughlin said that campus ministries can be a vital asset for troubled students.
“I think every campus realizes that it’s important for young people to have strong connections with other people. It’s a very stressful time of life,” she said.
“Oftentimes they just need to know they’re connected,” agreed Sister Donna Fannon, MHSH, chaplain at Cornell. “We have a very effective counseling service on campus, and we as chaplains can walk students over there if necessary. And we certainly are available on a daily basis for students to come in and talk.” She also noted that Cornell’s EARS program is made up of students trained in counseling skills.
Mary Humenay, director of Ithaca College Catholic Community, has been involved in campus ministry for nearly 30 years and observes a rising level of students coming to college with depression and related issues.
“Oh, absolutely. We’re dealing more and more with that,” she said.
Back at Virginia Tech, Roberson managed to find a silver lining in the face of this terrible turn of events.
“I love my school and the people that go to school here, and that hasn’t changed. I’m proud to be a Hokie and even more proud of the way my community and school have reacted,” said Roberson, a mechanical-engineering major.
However, Roberson said that “I think for most of us, this is going to take a long time to fully sink in and affect us … at this point the only thing any of us can do is pray for the victims and their families. “
He added that he wishes to “thank everyone for the support they have shown to Virginia Tech and the prayers they have said. We truly appreciate them.”