BLACKSBURG, Va. – Still grieving and increasingly wary of the media spotlight, Virginia Tech students returned to their beleaguered campus Sunday, preparing to salvage the final weeks of a semester eclipsed by violence.
The scene on campus resembled move-in day in late summer, with parents helping their children carry suitcases into dormitories. There were tears and hugs goodbye. But instead of excitement for the year ahead, there was simply determination to endure and regroup in the fall.
When classes resume Monday, the university will give students three choices: They can continue their studies through the end of the semester next week, take a grade based on what they have done so far, or withdraw from a course without penalty.
"I want to go back. It's just really strange to just stop going," said Paul Deyerle, a sophomore from Roanoke who was helping a friend move belongings from the dormitory where another close friend, Ryan Clark, was among those killed in the worst shooting massacre in modern U.S. history.
A number of students living in West Ambler Johnston Hall have asked to be relocated elsewhere.
"I need to keep going back," Deyerle said, struggling for words. "It seems like every other facet of my life is different now, so I have to."
A number of students said they had been drawn to the comforts of home immediately after the shooting, but now were drawn back to the tight-knit Virginia Tech community.
"When we hit (Route) 460 and we could see the campus, we both started crying," said sophomore Ashleigh Shifflett, eating a picnic lunch with her sister Regan near memorials to the victims on the central campus lawn. "I was happy to see my family, but I felt like I needed to be here, and when I came back here, it was like I'm home."
Virginia Tech officials say their top priority is the victims' families, and they have given each of them a private e-mail address and direct phone number for President Charles Steger.
Administrators have canceled big events such as the spring football game and postponed a fundraising campaign. The goal is to begin restarting academic life but without pushing the university's 26,000 students too hard.
"I don't know what else you could do," said John Rossi, chairman of the math department. "A student, I don't know how much they're going to be able to learn at this point. Maybe some can. But I think some students are just not going to be able to come, so why would you penalize them? There's going to be some faculty dealing with that, too."
Freshman Brittany Gambardella, who was asleep on the sixth floor of West Ambler Johnston when the rampage began two floors below, was not sure what, if any, work she would be doing the rest of the year. But that wasn't why she returned to campus from her home in Midlothian.
"I want to be back this week even if I don't take my exams, just to be with people," Gambardella said. "Then you go home, and you end the year on a good note."
Many returning students stopped by the campus lawn to visit memorials to the victims and sign posters of remembrance. A number attended religious services and were seen heading in and out of counseling centers.
State police plan to maintain a security presence on campus at least through Monday.
Students say they welcome the outpouring of support they have received, but they have grown noticeably weary of the news media. The Student Government Association asked reporters to leave by the start of classes Monday.
"Our students are ready to start moving forward, and the best way we can do that is to get the campus back to normal," Liz Hart, director of public relations for the SGA, said in a telephone interview. Students don't want "anything external to remind us it will be a difficult road. We know that."
There are other tough decisions sleepless university officials have not had time to consider, such as what to do with Norris Hall, the blood-soaked building where 31 people died, including Cho.
There is also the question of how many students will return next fall. Officials acknowledge they have received some inquiries about transferring, but it's unclear how many will do so. They are urging students not to rush into decisions.
Students interviewed by The Associated Press on campus in recent days say they and everyone they know intends to return.
"This is the best school around," said Steven Mason, a senior from Appomattox. "As far I'm concerned, they did everything they could."
Said Cheryl Gambardella, Brittany Gambardella's mother, as she helped her daughter unload the car: "We love this school. You always have concerns, but not because it's Virginia Tech. It could happen in a shopping mall."
Ed Spencer, the associate vice president of student affairs and husband of the admissions director, said the university was heartened that one alumnus showed up at the admissions office before it opened last Tuesday to hand deliver the $400 deposit for his son to enroll next fall.
Hart, the student government official, said she expected few to leave.
"We're not leaving," she said. "This is where we want to be. There's a greater sense of loyalty. There's more Hokie pride than ever."