George Mason University President Alan G. Merten remembers why 9/11 affected him so much. The burning Pentagon was so close to home, just as the crime scene at Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall was on Monday, April 16.
"It’s not just a massacre at a university; it’s a massacre at a Virginia university," said Merten, on why the event has affected his campus so much.
George Mason University’s Fairfax campus looked like it belonged in Blacksburg, Thursday, April 19, when thousands of mourners donned Virginia Tech’s maroon and orange, instead of GMU’s green and gold, to honor the victims of the deadliest shooting in U.S. history.
The student body president and president-elect began organizing the candlelight vigil ceremony just one day after Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, Monday, April 16.
"It hit so close to home," said Aseel Al-Mudallal, GMU’s student body president. "We’re all bound to have a friend that goes there."
Not only do GMU students have friends at Virginia Tech, Merten does as well. Charles W. Steger, Virginia Tech’s president, is Merten’s close friend and colleague. Merten said he couldn’t stop thinking about Steger’s grief. "I look at his face and I can see it," he said.
GMU faculty, staff and students expressed their condolences at the vigil ceremony, which attracted thousands of people. The service was one of many that took place that evening and throughout the week, both in Virginia and throughout the country.
"A bad thing has happened to great people at a great university, and I don’t know why," said Dr. Maurice Scherrens, senior vice president of GMU.
Scherrens repeated the statement throughout his speech, and he told the crowd they were all Hokies — the Virginia Tech mascot — for the evening. The victims will remain in the thoughts and prayers of everyone at GMU, he said.
"As tragic as this has been, I’m sure we’re supposed to learn something from this," said Scherrens. "It has reminded me that we are so not in control of anything; we are not masters of our own destiny."
THE SILENT CROWD listened closely as Scherrens talked about the struggle to understand what happened. Drew Shelnutt, GMU’s student body president-elect, said he hopes the tragedy will prompt universities all over to reevaluate their safety and security plans in an effort to prevent such events from happening again. At GMU, that process has already begun.
"We have been looking at everything," said Merten. "We’re leaving no stone unturned to understand what would we have done and what would we do."
But open college campuses are one of the strengths in American higher education, he said. "Sometimes those individual freedoms cause enormous pain," said Merten.
"It makes everyone realize that regardless of what a police force can or can’t do, it could happen anywhere; it affects everyone," said Shelnutt.
As Thomas Epps, a GMU junior from Petersburg, Va., sang "Amazing Grace," tears fell down many cheeks. Epps said the song has traditionally given people hope in times of sorrow. He sang it a cappella, and the sound of a pin drop could have been heard in between Epps’ verses. Some people held hands, while others sang along and cried.
Members from the Campus Ministry Association, representing five different religions, also participated in the ceremony by reading words expressing condolences. The name of each victim was then read, and 33 students each placed a long stem rose into a vase on the stage. The roses represented each of the victims, including Cho, the shooter.
"We are a caring community," said Scherrens. "GMU, you wear [Virginia Tech’s maroon and orange] proudly."
Scherrens said the university had already handed out 1,200 candles before the event started at 7 p.m. At least twice that number of people were in the crowd, and when they lit their candles in unison, a glow came over the post-dusk sky.
Laura Maps, a GMU junior from Manassas, performed another song that brought tears to the eyes in the crowd. As she sang "We Are Virginia," people held their candles high.
"A bad thing has happened to great people at a great university, and I will never know why — never," said Scherrens.
Thousands of mourners then followed Merten, Al-Mudallal and Shelnutt over to the statue of George Mason to lay flowers and a memorial wreath in front of it. The statue was dressed in a Virginia Tech jersey in honor of the victims.