BLACKSBURG, Virginia — To the casual observer, Virginia Tech looks like any other school, as students walk across the sprawling campus to class, sporting events and their dorms. But just one year ago, this was the location of the worst gun rampage in United States history.It would be inconceivable to think that the Virginia Tech campus is the same place it was before April 16, 2007. But the school's population shows few outward signs of fear, sadness or hopelessness.
"We are being normal college kids," said junior Heidi Dull, who lost her friend Caitlin Hammaren in the shootings. "We stayed a tightly knit community, and since classes were kind of up in the air at the end of the year, we had a good chance to bond with our friends. We got our lives back in order."
(We've asked several students to write about the event -- including MTV's Virginia Street Teamer, who remembers her friend Caitlin Hammaren; junior Heidi Dull; freshman Elena Dulys-Busbaum; and Bryce Carter, who live-blogged as the tragedy was happening a year ago. We'll be rolling these out through the day.)
A year ago, an emotional interview Dull gave to Sway garnered an immense amount of attention from her fellow classmates and media. People magazine even put her on its cover following the April 16 attacks.
"I was contacted by so many people on campus and Facebook — [from] schools all over the place, and it kept going for months," she said.
While allowing herself to be so vulnerable on campus could have opened Dull up to criticism, she says the exact opposite happened.
"I think it showed a perspective of the campus that a lot of people felt they just might not have been able to put into words," she said. "I'm really glad that I did it, and I'm thankful for how many people responded and gave me support."
Another student who has had constant interaction with the media over the past year is Bryce Carter, now a sophomore, who famously live-blogged the events as they were unfolding. In fact, some footage he shot from his dorm room on the day of the shootings became the second most-watched video on YouTube that day.
While Carter is, in a way, thankful that he has a log of his emotions and reactions on such a life-altering day, there is also a sense of confusion and a series of questions he must confront when reliving the experience. "It floors me to see it, to think, was that really me?" he said. "Was that really where we were then? It is so interesting to have that record."
Like Dull, the feeling Carter has when thinking about his life at Virginia Tech is his love for the sense of community that exists on campus.
"I love this school," he said. "I've loved it since I got here. There is always something going on, there are always friendly people around the corner, and there's always support. As the events last year have shown, we are just so strong and tightly knit. I haven't seen that anywhere else."
Though students say Virginia Tech was always a friendly campus, many agree that the shared experience of last year has strengthened their bond.
"No school would ever be able to be ready for something like this," senior Angella De Soto said. "But I think, just because of how close we were and how friendly everybody was, it was a perfect opportunity for us to heal together."
But what about the more than 5,000 freshmen who entered the school last fall? These students, while fortunate not to have experienced the tragedy, have entered a community deeply connected by an event they only watched on the news.
"There is always going to be a divide between those who were there and those who weren't," Elena Dulys-Nusbaum, a freshman, said. "For us, it's more than a cold television screen, but it's so much less than an experience, so we as freshmen are caught in a sort of limbo."
While the freshmen may not be able to relate entirely to the rest of the campus, they certainly can be a strong and welcomed part of it. As Dull said, "I think that [the freshmen] are just kind of a step back from everyone else, but they are obviously Hokies and part of our school."
For the students at Virginia Tech who lived through the massacre, certain things will forever separate them from college students across the nation. "I don't think that people in class look at the door like we do," Dull said. "It is a part of my life that I have experienced and will stand out forever."
While that may be true, the students at Virginia Tech demonstrate that the enduring, indefinable Hokie spirit that has always been a part of the school is now stronger than ever.