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Remembering 9/11

Ten years later, alumni recall their experiences of the tragic day

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September 8, 2011 | by Matt Paolelli
On Sept. 9, 2001, Chris Wright left New York to return to Evanston for his senior year at Northwestern University. As he crossed the George Washington Bridge, he said he remembers glancing at the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Two days later, the towers were gone, and Wright spent hours on the phone trying to reach his family.

“During that day, and throughout the coming weeks, I relied on my Northwestern friends to cope with an event that just felt so surreal,” he said.

Northwestern will commemorate the 10th anniversary of that tragic day with a gathering at the Rock at 2 p.m. Sunday. President Morton Schapiro will join University Chaplain Timothy Stevens and student leaders in a time of solemn remembrance and reflection. All are welcome to attend.

The Dittmar Memorial Gallery in Norris University Center is also honoring the anniversary with “9/11 Remembered,” an exhibit featuring Northwestern alumnus Marshall Kappel’s photographs of New Yorkers’ responses to the tragedy. The display, a part of the Dittmar’s permanent collection, runs through Sept. 11 in NU Galleria on the ground floor of Norris.

Though it’s been a decade since that initially normal Tuesday morning in September, Northwestern alumni still vividly remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the confused reports of burning buildings and hijacked airplanes.

David Hoskinson, a 2001 Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences graduate, was still on campus on 9/11, beginning a master of science in education program and attending a training session for his role as a residential assistant at a fraternity.

“I ate breakfast at 1835 Hinman and as I was putting my tray on the line to head to Norris for training, I overheard someone saying that one of the twin towers had been hit,” he said. “By the time I biked over to Norris, everyone was gathered around the televisions.”

Further north on campus, Zeenat Rashid (Communication ’03) was on campus for a software training session in Annenberg Hall. But the events of the day soon took precedence.

“Everyone realized what was happening and put on CNN’s live feed on a big projector monitor to watch as news of the last attack came in,” she said. “Reporters were suggesting that other big cities like Chicago could be next. My first thought was that if a plane hit the Sears Tower, we could probably see it from the lakefill.”

With the new school year about to begin, some incoming freshmen arrived early for pre-New Student Week activities. Incoming freshmen Jacqueline Azpeitia (Communication ’05) and Yolanda Hare (Weinberg ’05) were already living on campus for the Summer Academic Workshop program.

“Being away from home during such a tough time was hard, but being surrounded by new friends and sharing that experience made things a lot easier,” Azpeitia said. “Ten years later I am still good friends with those people and to this day we can talk about our shared memories of 9/11.”

When New Student Week began in the immediate wake of 9/11, the normally celebratory mood on campus was tempered by the sobering events that had just occurred.

“We were supposed to be getting ready to start a new school year and welcome a new class to Northwestern,” said Mike Saxvik (Weinberg ’03). “Instead, we were having conversations as to who would be able to make it back in time to start classes and what is the appropriate balance of mourning and celebration.”

The closure of airports and cancellation of flights forced many freshmen and returning students to modify their route back to Evanston. Jerome Curran Pandell (Weinberg ’05) planned to arrive in Chicago on Sept. 11 on a flight from San Francisco. Instead, his father rented a car, and he arrived several days later than expected.

“I also remember meeting fellow freshmen at Willard just returning from Project Wildcat,” he said. “With cell phones and social media not being ubiquitous as they are now, some of them did not hear about the attacks until they returned to campus, with messages from parents and loved ones to call.”

Sarah Iftekhar (Weinberg ’05) also faced a flight cancellation and made a belated drive from New Jersey to Evanston, forcing her to miss several orientation events. As a Muslim, she said she was initially hesitant to assert her cultural and religious identity on campus.

“Looking back, my subconscious fear of being unfairly judged, or having to explain heinous acts that were done in the name of my religion guided me on those first few days on campus,” she said. “I soon realized, however, that the majority of the Northwestern community was above such shallow prejudice and was an incredibly diverse and supportive place.”

Deanna Othman (Weinberg ’02, Medill ’03) said she was similarly concerned about potential backlash toward Muslim students, but her fears were alleviated when she returned to campus for her senior year.

“Everyone was incredibly supportive, and President Bienen met with the Muslim students to let us know that, should we face any negative comments, the administration was there to help,” she said. “I also remember meeting with members of the NU interfaith community who stood in solidarity with us. I even wrote a column in The Daily Northwestern about my experience as an American Muslim after 9/11.”

Campus traditions were affected as well. The Rock, a campus landmark that is normally repainted every night by a different student group, received a patriotic paint job featuring an American flag and the phrase “United We Stand.” The Rock was not painted again until Sept. 28 -- an unprecedented two weeks.

The first home football game, scheduled for Sept. 15 against Navy, was cancelled and replaced by a November matchup against Bowling Green. The first post-9/11 home game Sept. 29 against Michigan State featured a pre-game memorial service with a large American flag carried by City of Evanston firefighters and police officers.

Although the events of 9/11 were life-changing and tragic, alumni said they felt fortunate to be at Northwestern during such an unforgettable moment in history.

“What strikes me most about that time was how well the University tried to make New Student Week as normal as possible, responding to events the only way possible, with public lectures about terrorism and national security, with opportunities for public mourning at ‘unity’ events, with ‘teach-ins’ about Islam, religion and politics,” Pandell said. “I remember within the first month that the eventual co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, gave a prescient lecture on how the government might respond domestically and in terms of foreign policy.

“All in all, the Sept. 11 attacks helped bring the campus together, a great feeling especially for those arriving for the first time,” he said.