On Friday afternoon and evening (May 11), around 5,000 Virginia Tech students will receive the bachelor's and advanced degrees they've spent the last several years earning.
But it will be impossible to escape the specter of last month's horrific events (see "33 Dead In Shootings At Virginia Tech"). Friday's ceremony may well be the most bittersweet commencement in the institution's 134 years. Posthumous degrees will be given to 27 of the victims.
Now, as graduation day arrives, Sway returns to Virginia Tech to attend the commencement and visit some of the students he'd met.
To see it now, you could never have known what took place here a month ago. You would never know it happened. It seems the campus is back to normal: People are walking around, getting ready for the graduation, and that's just on the surface.
For me, coming back was just like ... I had a little knot in my stomach because it was such an emotional experience. Just absorbing all that energy that was around [after] the shootings — you felt like you were involved somehow. So, being back, the first thing I thought of was that my mind, during that whole process, didn't really belong to me. It belonged to the students, it belonged to the stories we were trying to get across the airwaves. It's starting to feel like that again. You disappear in it all and just kind of serve as a conduit.
I'm looking around, and there's not as much media frenzy as it was the day after the shootings. The campus is very organized in regards with how they're dealing with outsiders coming onto the campus. It feels like, in a sense, that tragedy has given [way] to hope, so I am interested to see how the student body is reacting since then and how people are getting along, how they're holding up.
The thing I remember most [from the campus after the shootings] is probably the overwhelming despair, sorrow and sadness. It was an eerie feeling. It felt like a cloud, just a cloud over everything. Flowers — you didn't even notice the flowers. There was such a frenzy and it was so chaotic you couldn't really get your bearings, and at the core of it all were a lot of students who were just hurting, and emotionally in pain.
It was a conflict for me — of trying to do my job and also trying to accommodate those who were suffering because of the tragedy. And that conflict was constant throughout the day, because after I started doing interviews and talking to students, then I actually saw the route [Cho] took from the dorm to Norris Hall, and saw how short the distance was. It was just unbelievable. Everything felt so surreal. You were taking in all this emotion from the people you're interviewing, you absorbed it and it starts wearing and tearing on you. The conflict grew.
It was like, I have a job to do. But at the same time, I felt damn near sleazy doing it. On the other hand, you want to help these people get their stories out, and our angle was a very important one because I felt like we could serve as a form of therapy to those who were suffering. That's what I remember most. And then throughout the day, as it started to settle a little bit, people became more and more open. By the end of the day, you felt like you'd lost weight. You just felt so bad for people, I felt like I went through it, too — like I had lost friends. I felt like an honorary member of the student body.
To go to vigil [at the Drillfield] that night (see "Somber Vigil Ends Day Of Mourning At Virginia Tech") and see the thousands of people coming together as a community was really inspiring, because it showed a lot of strength. So coming back, it's no surprise to me that this community still looks strong, and they look like they're in the process of recovering.
It's a bittersweet moment for a lot of people. Graduation is like that anyway — you're leaving something you've been a part of for years. Even given the fact of what happened, and right now, I walked over to the part of Drillfield where they held the vigil, and there are 33 Hokie Stones [laid on the ground in a semi-circle] like a miniature shrine to all the people who lost their lives, including the gunner. They also have some walls up in the middle of the field, where people have left their thoughts and memories.
We reached out to Alison Smith [a 22-year-old from Pittsburgh] who actually met [Cho long before the shootings], she's graduating with honors. I am looking forward to seeing her and all of the students we met, because outside of the camera, I feel like we made a pretty special connection — as far as it could go, considering the circumstances. And throughout that day, I was able to talk to people and kind of get them smiling, and Alison was very helpful. I think we're going to trail her today as she prepares for graduation. I am really looking forward to how [the students] are doing.
I haven't told the students anything. I don't feel like it's my place to tell them. I have interviewed three or four people so far, and they've expressed how strong the community's been in the past few weeks, knitting together. They've expressed, even though graduation is bittersweet as it is, that this tragedy isn't overshadowing the Hokie spirit, as well as the event. That's because they are honoring the 27 students that were killed with degrees. I've asked them what they're going to do afterwards, and at some point, everybody has said, "I am going to the beach before I go work." I jokingly told them, "As long as you can stay at that beach, stay there! Because once you go to work, that's what your life is going to be about."
What I expected to find here is what I found: a recuperating community. People aren't walking around with their heads down, kicking cans. They're still hugging each other and crying. People have smiles on their faces. It's graduation day. They're paying their respects at the memorials. There's not a sad face around. These students haven't forgotten what happened here, but they've accepted and they're moving forward with the memory of the people they lost. In my opinion, they couldn't be fully recuperated, but they are recuperating.
I feel bad for this community. That was a horrific thing to have happened. I've seen a lot of stuff in my day, growing up in Oakland [California] and living in Harlem [New York]. But nothing, nothing, nothing compares to what it felt like the day after the massacre. And so, looking at this, it's kind of incredible. It's admirable how they've dealt with it.
Read "Students From Across U.S. Respond To Shootings: 'It Is Beyond Unsettling' ", "On Virginia Tech Campus: 'I Can't Believe This Happened Here' ", "Gunshots 'Sounded Like A Hammer': Virginia Tech Students Speak About Shootings" and " 'People Are Missing': VT Student Reflects On Loss Of Friend" for firsthand accounts from the Virginia Tech campus and additional student reactions.