On May 1, 2011 at 11:35 p.m., students across America joined the nation in waiting for an address from President Barack Obama on the status of Operation Neptune Spear, the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. It was another moment that united the nation.
Meanwhile, Patricia Whitely, vice president for student affairs, watched the speech thinking of the University of Miami and the way campus operated on Sept. 11, 2001.
Although the first attacks on 9/11 took place more than a thousand miles away from the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus, the world was changed that day. And 11 years later, in a post-9/11 world seeming smaller by the minute, no one remains untouched.
It was during President Donna E. Shalala’s first year as university president when at 8:46 a.m., five terrorists crashed a plane into the World Trade Center’s North tower. Initial reports called it a terrible accident, but at 9:03 a.m., when the second tower was hit, America began to realize that it wasn’t a coincidence at all.
Whitely remembers finding out at a United Way breakfast being held in the BankUnited Center.
“The chain of events happened so quickly that it was hard to get your hands around it to really comprehend what was happening,” she said. Shock and awe aside, there were “immediate needs and concerns for the safety of the campus, but more so, emotional support.”
In addition to the two attacks on the World Trade Center, a plane was flown into the Pentagon and another crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. According to Whitely, the student body consisted of 1,837 students from the Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York areas.
That figure meant there was a high chance students were affected personally, and as Whitely noted, the university was “very concerned with reaching out to them.”
Jon Baldessari, the associate director for the Department of Housing and Residential Life, recalls starting the day like most others.
By the afternoon, however, things changed.
“We were talking with students and parents by telephone and email,” he said.
Though classes were not cancelled, the university mourned.
“President Shalala believed we needed to go to school and mourn but continue to carry on our lives,” Whitely said, recalling a world before Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “It was also interesting to be with her, since she had just been a Cabinet official. It was intense that she had just left Washington. But she did a wonderful job being very much in touch with security.”
For students on Miami’s campus now, it’s hard to recall a time before TSA and a time when air travel didn’t require the removal of shoes, belts and sweatshirts. But for the students on campus in 2001, their lives would never be the same.
It’s also important to note that the attacks took place in a pre-text message world, whereas on campus now, students would all receive a text message, email, and voice message in the event of a threat on campus. This service, where students receive a series of messages should a crisis occur, is the Emergency Notification Network. It is a product of the Office of Emergency Management, headed by director Scott Burnotes.
Whitely recognizes that students who are freshmen or sophomores now were only 8 or 9 years old; to them nothing about the security measures on this campus seem strange. Currently, the campus is equipped with a police force, a Student Affairs Crisis Coordinator Team, a psychologist and a chaplain on duty. Whitely believes that “there should be no reason for a student to feel unsafe.”
Although tragedies like campus shootings hit closer to home for a university, Whitely says that any event encourages administrators to “see what you can learn from it and how you can improve your own policies and procedures. Even if it’s a worldwide event, there can still be some relevance and parallels.”
One example is the number of veterans coming to campus after having fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has grown so much that the Dean of Students Office has instituted a Veteran’s Student Services. There are 170 veterans on campus, while 10 years ago there were probably 10, Whitely said.
“You still ask yourself, ‘did this event really happen in my lifetime?’ This was like science fiction,” Whitely said, rememebering the attacks. “For us, what’s important is that we’ve always had something commemorative on 9/11. I think it would be remiss if we didn’t.”
The first candlelight vigil on campus was held Sept. 12, immediately following the attacks, and approximately 700 students attended.
“It was an incredible time and we just wanted to offer support,” Whitely said. “Just such a sad day. People couldn’t get over it.”
This year’s ceremony will be held at 9:00 p.m. on Sept. 11 and will take place at the UC Rock.
Despite the passage of time, Whitely believes 9/11 to be one of the most significant events of the beginning of the 21st century.
“I think it’s important to continue that tradition we’ve established. I don’t think every campus can say that,” she said.