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Students signing a banner.

On Thursday, scores of students signed messages on a banner to be delivered to Virginia Tech.

Dealing with a national tragedy

The University community confronts its feelings after the Virginia Tech killings

April 20, 2007

The University of Minnesota, like all schools across the country this week, felt the shock waves rippling out from Virginia Tech along with their load of disbelief, anger, and sadness.

Since Monday, the day Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 people and himself, University students, staff, and faculty have been dealing with the tragedy, both personally--through their own thoughts and feelings--and collectively, when a bomb threat on Wednesday cleared seven Twin Cities campus buildings and when a memorial vigil on Thursday brought the University community together.

Provost Tom Sullivan sent out a University wide e-mail Monday after the news broke voicing solidarity with those affected by the shootings. He also encouraged students, faculty, and staff to pay attention to their surroundings, call 911 if concerned, seek counseling if they are struggling with personal challenges, and learn more about the U's emergency preparedness.

But the "big strong feeling," he says, was that there's a lot of good on campus and that we really do help each other out.

Ed Ehlinger, director of Boynton Health Service, met with several faculty, staff, and students this week to talk about their feelings since the shootings and was surprised to find that the meeting went on far longer than expected. "We just let the meeting continue, and people said 'I really needed that,'" says Ehlinger. "Once they started talking, they recognized that they felt better [because of it]. And that other people have similar kinds of thoughts."

Ehlinger says of the students, that some felt the incident was tragic, that it could happen [on the Twin Cities campus], and that they need to be paying attention to other students. They felt we needed to be kinder and show common courtesies. But the "big strong feeling," he says, was that there's a lot of good on campus and that we really do help each other out.

Harriett Haynes is director and senior psychologist at University Counseling and Consulting Services. She spoke at the vigil and was touched by the number of students who attended. "It's important to identify our reactions to this tragedy and do self-care," says Haynes.

Normal emotions, according to Haynes, include grief, difficulty focusing, and a need to check in with loved ones.

"People might need additional counseling support if they experience abrupt changes in their own behavior, high feelings of anxiety and fear that seem not to go away," she says. "Or if they have strong emotions like crying that feel unusual and don't seem to want to recede, or they feel rage or the desire to lash out and hurt others."

She urges students who feel the need for more help to contact University Counseling and Consulting Services faculty and staff can contact the Employee Assistance Program for their own needs.

"Sometimes we see people and it's late," says Haynes. "We could have been much more helpful if we'd encountered them earlier on when they were feeling unhappy. There are students out there who know their colleagues are not feeling well, and who are feeling psychologically fragile, but are keeping it to themselves. We want students, faculty, and staff to join with us to encourage people to get the help that they need. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness."

In the coming week, University officials will be reviewing policies and procedures in light of the Virginia Tech incident to make sure--as far as humanly possible--that such a disaster will not strike their school.