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Why I'm Still Proud

By Michael Berger
Sunday, April 22, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va.

I came to Virginia Tech in the fall of 2003, following my sister, Kelly, who was in the class of 2005. Now I'm a senior, a history major with a Russian language minor, and until two weeks ago, I was managing editor of the student newspaper, the Collegiate Times. I've had a great time here, but even before last Monday, I was looking forward to graduating on May 12, moving on and starting a new life.

Then came the shootings. Now I want to graduate more than ever.

But it's an uneasy feeling. To be honest, most of us who weren't directly affected by last week's shootings are still searching for the proper emotion. A few of my friends are grieving for people they knew. For many of the rest of us, the sadness comes mostly from the sense of horror and the disruption in our once-normal lives. Trying to balance shock, relief, anger and concern, we end up feeling confused and unsure. We still love this place, but it's different -- at least for now.

What I remember most about last Monday is how disconnected it felt. I was awakened that morning by Amie Steele, the new editor in chief of the Collegiate Times. It was my first day off from the paper; we graduating seniors had handed the editorial reins over to the underclassmen the week before. Working for the paper, I'd covered the 2006 manhunt for escaped prisoner William C. Morva, recent bomb threats on campus and numerous other police operations -- but nothing like what was about to unfold.

At that point, only the first two shootings had been reported, but soon after that first phone call, the flood of e-mails and instant messages started. Friends were telling me that they saw people running outside on the Drillfield, across from Norris Hall, or that the gunman had moved to nearby Burruss Hall. Each casualty total seemed more unbelievable than the last. Campus-wide e-mails started arriving, telling us that classes were cancelled, to stay at home, to stay away from windows.

So my roommate and I stayed in our house. The Internet kept crashing, and we could answer desperate calls from our parents only with, "We're okay." Throughout the morning, no one knew if the shooter was still out there or what had really happened. We didn't even dare leave the house to get food.

And yet, even though we were forced to watch the same news the same way thousands of people across the country did, we're the ones who will have to live with the consequences. And I refuse to let the memories of those who died fade into regret, and I refuse to let the actions of one man tarnish my life and taint my experience.

Yes, there is now a stain on my time at Virginia Tech. But there are far more good memories that outweigh it. Yes, we're all focused on this tragedy. But I keep other things in the back of my mind: Reuniting with an old middle-school friend at a Hokies spirit event my freshman year and rooming with him ever since. Traveling around the country with the university chamber singers. Working at the Collegiate Times, which introduced me to a new profession that I love and intend to pursue. These are the moments that define Virginia Tech in my eyes, and the reasons why, once I graduate, I'll be sad to no longer call it my home.

I've had lots of classes in Norris, where most of the students were shot, every semester since I was a freshman. Now it's weird to think about the last time I was in there, listening to a lecture, taking notes, walking out at the end of class talking about the day's newspaper with a fellow editor. My current classes there on ancient Greece will be moved to another building, and I can't see classes ever being held in Norris again. I can't even see it being turned into faculty offices. Some students have suggested that the school knock it down; others think a memorial park would be appropriate. I just know that right now, it's a haunting mausoleum surrounded by police tape.

With no classes to go to last week, many students went home. Those of us who stayed mostly just wandered around. Many went to vigils and memorials, but most of the time you just found yourself alone with your thoughts. Aside from the police presence and the many memorial sites, campus has never been so empty. I'm actually disappointed that more people didn't stay at school. I hope that in time they'll feel as connected, as comfortable, in this place as I do. I hope that nothing will ever again happen to drive them away.

I will always be proud to say I'm a Virginia Tech alumnus, that I was in Blacksburg during our darkest hour and that we all came together for something much greater than just cheering our football team. I'll be proud to recall the way the football field overflowed for the convocation last Tuesday, with students and faculty tearfully staring up at the live feed from Cassell Coliseum. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said it best in his speech that day -- we showed the world our fortitude, our community and who we are as people.

I'm ready to leave, but only as a graduate. And a part of me will always remain at Virginia Tech, with a university that has offered me far more than I could ever hope to give back.

Michael Berger, of Arlington, is a senior at Virginia Tech.

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