Letter to the Editor: Remembering a first day on the anniversary of 9/11
What I learned about AU from a different emergency
Of all the things I looked forward to when I started working at American University, near the top was returning to D.C. I was coming to AU after nine years at Syracuse University, but I knew the D.C. area, having worked for 11 years at both George Washington and George Mason Universities. In those days I lived in the Shirlington area of Northern Virginia and I was staying there with a friend while transitioning from upstate New York.
On my first morning, I took the familiar route up 395 to the GW parkway, driving past the Pentagon, heading towards Georgetown. It was hot, the windows were up and the A/C was on high in contrast to the mild Syracuse summers. I eagerly fiddled with the radio, embracing all the options that the D.C. area offered. This was going to be great — I was coming home.
And then, as I approached Rosslyn, Don Imus abruptly stopped his conversation and asked: “Did something happen at the World Trade Center?”
My first day on AU’s campus was September 11, 2001, 20 years ago. On my drive in, the events unfolding in real time weren’t clear to me. Thinking back, I know I drove past the Pentagon about five minutes before a plane crashed into it. In heavy traffic, with the windows up, I didn’t see or hear that happen.
It wasn’t until I arrived at AU that the details of that day became clearer. The internet in 2001 was not the instant "go to" source that it is today, so students, faculty and staff were making calls, staying glued to television in the Tavern or the residence halls and checking in with car radios to understand what was happening.
And when the second tower was hit, and both towers fell, the shock and uncertainty which would last for several weeks settled in over our campus, just two weeks after the start of the fall semester.
This was my first day on a new campus. My family, with two elementary school children, was still in Syracuse until I found a place to live. I would stay on campus, in Anderson, for those first three weeks. How would this campus respond to such an “unheard of” emergency? The answer included a lot of improvisation and adaptation, but at the root of it all, the campus responded with kindness, cooperation and accommodation.
Offices opened their doors to students to allow them to call whomever they needed, local or long distance — cellphones weren’t everywhere then! Some faculty cancelled classes and instead served as facilitators for students needing to process what was happening. The Kay Spiritual Life Center organized vigils and remained open to all for prayers and gathering. A prank bomb scare later in the week caused a temporary evacuation to the parking lot on what is now East campus. I distinctly remember a student pausing in the Mary Graydon Center lobby as everyone was exiting. I stopped to check on her and she said “I just need a minute.” Students and staff went out of their way to check in on and support Muslim students, who were anxious long after the immediate danger had passed.
These are just a few of my memories of arriving on campus in unprecedented circumstances. For many it took some time and a lot of active listening from strangers, colleagues and fellow students to find a path for persisting. AU demonstrated to me that this community could engage and endure through the toughest of times.
Now, we find ourselves arriving on campus under different “unprecedented circumstances,” which will once again test who we are. For our students, all have had to adjust in the previous two years to a new paradigm of learning and gathering. For our staff and faculty, all are searching for ways to make the student experience meaningful and vital.
How we get there requires from everyone what I found here 20 years ago: kindness, cooperation and accommodation. But today I would add something else: patience and consideration. Students, faculty and staff have approached the pandemic in diverse ways. The campus once again needs a combination of informed improvisation and nimble adaptation.
To get to where all of us want to go, understanding and respecting each individual as they work through their own adaptation is step one. When a fellow student, a food service worker, a housekeeper or a staff or faculty member stops and says “I need a moment,” be there for them. Give them consideration and know that this is not easy for anyone. When we come to a common understanding that we all contribute to a healthy and vibrant campus, we will take the next step.
Michael Elmore is the director of University Center at American University.