For the shock, the shattered sense of security, the prayers and the tears, 250 chairs weren’t nearly enough.
A crowd of about 500 people – double the number of white folding chairs set up by organizers – filtered into the MLK Plaza Wednesday afternoon for USF’s Virginia Tech Memorial Vigil. Those who attended came for different reasons – to mourn, to heal and to show support for a university community in Blacksburg, Va. where a day of violence and its echoes have held the nation in a sustained state of disbelief.
“No matter how hard we try, it is difficult to describe the horror of this event,” said Provost Rhenu Khator. “A tragedy like this can shatter our sense of security. And when it happens on a university campus, we not only lose our sense of physical security, but our sense of intellectual security as well.”
The students, faculty, staff and members of the local community, many of them sporting Hokie burgundy and orange, clustered under trees and by tables on a warm spring afternoon when Virginia Tech felt much closer than the 450 miles that separate Tampa and Blacksburg.
“Unlike the outer body, the inner body does not die,” said Khator, translating part of a poem that she first read in Sanskrit. “While we mourn the loss, we have to remember that the inner light is always with us.”
Before and after the event, the students, faulty and staff in attendance wrote messages on cards and signed a green-and-gold banner that read “USF’s Virginia Tech.” Organizers will send the cards and banner to Blacksburg as part of project “We mourn together.” Universities across the country held similar vigils and sent messages of sorrow and support to the 25,000-student community nestled in the mountains of northern Virginia.
“The University represents hope, future and progress, and in one moment that can change,” Vice President of Student Affairs Jennifer Meningall said. “While this tragedy is senseless and we’ll probably never understand why this happened, we still have to focus on what’s yet to come and on tomorrow.”
Religious leaders from the Campus Ministry Association also spoke and led prayers, seeking meaning in the senselessness of Monday’s events.
“We dream of a better place,” said Paul Joiner, Campus Minister for the University of South Florida. “The voice of peace and of rest seems but an echo in our ears, a distant voice calling us.
“Make this evil haunt our hearts. Make us more uncomfortable with racism and sexism, with injustice and sexual assaults, with hate and anger in our own hearts and on our own campus.”
Phil Winters, president of the local chapter of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association and a researcher at the Center for Urban Transportation and Research (CUTR), led listeners in chants of “Let’s Go Hokies,” a cheer recited by thousands at a candlelight vigil held in Blacksburg Tuesday night.
Kimberly Mallard, assistant director of the USF Campus Recreation Department, sported a burgundy-and-orange ribbon as she moved through the crowd before and after the event. The ribbon was pinned to her shirt, just above lettering that read “Virginia Tech Alumni.”
“Blacksburg and Virginia Tech is a special place,” said Mallard. “It’s special to me and it’s special to a ton of people. Part of that place is destroyed. But the spirit of that place, the spirit of the Hokies, doesn’t die. There is power in all of this – all of these people uniting.”