With flags at half-staff and hearts heavy with grief, the Purdue community found untapped reservoirs of strength and unity during a period of national tragedy.
The shocking events of September 11, 2001, produced a series of reactions on the Universitys campuses. Students, faculty and staff went from disbelief, to anger, to deep sadness, to constructive action in a matter of days. The response of our students in the weeks since the terrorist attacks has bolstered my faith in these young Americans.
One of my first thoughts when I learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was that this generation of students has not seen this kind of tragedy, and I wondered how they would handle the trauma. The answer came very quickly. Almost immediately, students started lining up to donate blood for victims of the attacks. Leaders of numerous organizations began discussing fund drives. American flags appeared on bicycles and backpacks as young people discovered a strain of patriotism that many did not realize they possessed.
On September 12, the evening after the attacks, students organized a candlelight vigil at Slayter Center, an outdoor performance facility on the West Lafayette campus. More than 4,000 people attended. When the formal program was over, many students simply were not ready to leave. They lingered together, joined hands and sang "Amazing Grace" and other inspirational songs.
Two days later, in response to President Bushs call for a day of prayer and remembrance, more than 6,000 people packed the Elliott Hall of Music for a memorial service. Thousands of others were turned away and watched the event at alternate sites where it was televised.
Two things stand out in my memory of that very moving ceremony. One is the image of Dr. Maria Wainer, who spoke for the local Jewish community, and Dr. Zarjon Baha, who represented the Muslim faith. At the close of the service, they remained backstage, consoling one another and discussing how they would talk to their respective groups in the days ahead. I saw their mutual concern as an example of our countrys unique ability to bring diverse people together.
The second vivid memory is the words of Erin Taylor, a Purdue undergraduate who spoke at the service. She said:
"To those here who have lost someone ... I ache for what you must be going through. I and many others here today want to be there for you. If there is anything you need, please reach out to friends, roommates, professors and others. There are people around you who arewilling to listen.
"To those here who feel blamed, I want to say I am sorry. In coping with an event like this, the degree of humanitys confusion shows. Like you, we are all looking for answers as to why this has happened and for who could have done such a thing. But it is not okay for us to blame one culture or one country as a whole. Condemning and harassing individuals in our own communities based on mindless judgments made to expedite the process of placing blame, instigating retaliation and finding closure, only weakens our home front and places our nation on the same playing ground as the terrorist attack on the United States. As an educated community we must come together and rise above such actions."
Erins words convey a wisdom beyond her years, and her message must have been taken to heart. The mood on campus has remained positive and conciliatory. She also has been one of the leaders of a relief funding drive that has involved more than 20 student organizations.
The theme of the campaign is "Reflect, Respect, Restore." The students have set a goal of $60,000, and, as I write this, they are giving up their time to collect money throughout the campus.
None of us knows how or when the reverberations from the September 11 attacks will end, but there is no question that the response of students at Purdue and elsewhere has shown that this country is still producing great generations.