As a 2007 Virginia Tech graduate and a young journalist, I felt compelled to return to my beloved campus one year after the tragic events of April 16. I went back to Blacksburg, Va., to spend time with administrators and students, and to see how my Hokie community was healing.
As always, I woke up early that Monday to check my e-mail before walking two blocks to campus for a 10:10 a.m. class. It just so happened that my professor had e-mailed my classmates and me that he was canceling class because his daughter was sick.
I still ventured onto campus to pick up breakfast before tackling a 20-page paper that was due by midnight. I returned home to find my roommates in a panic.
Word had gotten out about a shooting at West Ambler-Johnston Hall, my dorm during my freshman year, and authorities were looking into it.
Shortly after, a message reached our inboxes that a shooter might be on the loose. I had goosebumps.
Next thing I knew, I was on the phone with my mom watching the events unfold on television. We had been watching the local channels, and then switched to cable news. How strange it was to see the campus I knew so well — just blocks away — plastered all over every channel.
As we channel-surfed for more answers, reports of a staggering 20-plus deaths flashed on our screen. At that point, the media determined that we were in the midst of the "Virginia Tech Massacre," a phrase that was incomprehensible.
• PHOTOS: The Virginia Tech Massacre | The Victims | The Gunman | First Anniversary
By the time 32 deaths were reported, cell phone lines were overloaded and my laptop was my only connection to the world. I was frantically checking e-mails from my student organizations. I felt huge relief when my sorority president e-mailed the chapter saying we were all accounted for.
I received dozens of Facebook messages from friends all over the country just checking in to see that we were OK. That was when it began to sink in.
Friends trickled over to our house. We were unsure why, but we knew we needed to be together.
• VIDEO PAGE: REMEMBERING VIRGINIA TECH
After countless hours of staring at the horrific images on our screen, we hopped in our cars to see for ourselves. As we turned the corner onto West Campus Drive, a sea of satellite trucks and reporters had invaded our home. Their presence confirmed the reality.
Coming back one year later — for work, not a football game — was the most challenging assignment I've ever been given. Not only was it a rollercoaster of emotions for me, but this time I was the journalist.
My greatest hurdle was finding students who were willing to share their feelings. I am so grateful for the students and staff who took time to sit with me, express how they're doing and openly share their memories of the loved ones they lost.
I became so absorbed in their stories that I truly believed I knew those victims, too. Each person reminded me of peers and colleagues I knew and loved during my years there.
Jay Poole, the director of the Office of Recovery and Support, said it best when he described the 32 victims as a cross-section of our community, a variety of genuine, kind people, all with so much potential and so much more to give: passionate professors who would never let a lecture run short; teaching assistants who patiently waited as their class conducted four-hour labs in the rain; and students who were multi-talented, leaders in their classrooms and organizations.
This was the community I was a part of for four terrific years.
Off camera, students thanked me for giving them the opportunity to sit down and simply talk. Many admitted that they hadn't opened up about the massacre in a year. I’m happy to have helped with another step in their healing process.
The lingering question remains, however: Will Virginia Tech ever return to normalcy? The answer is: Absolutely.
As I walked around the drill field, I couldn’t help but feel like a student again. I pictured myself among the anxious freshmen racing to class, the soccer players enjoying a warm Blacksburg afternoon, even the students getting tickets for parking in a faculty spot.
One of my favorite things about the Hokies is that no matter how much maroon and orange clash, you can always count on at least two-thirds of the population to be decked out in the school colors any day of the week. I’m happy to report that this remains true today.
I had the pleasure of living in the tiny bubble of Blacksburg, Va. When our bubble burst, we grew closer. My last month of college was the most memorable of my four years.
I’ve learned that the road to recovery is grueling and heartbreaking. But a resilient university, combined with a compassionate community, proves triumphant.
We are Virginia Tech.