Colleges Try to Engage Students 'Too Young' to Grasp 9/11

But some students insist their youth doesn’t preclude appreciating the magnitude of September 11.

Some schools will display one flag for each 9/11 victim to raise awareness about the September 11 attacks.
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The University of Toledo in Ohio will host nine events today, including a talk about butterflies and a business of medicine meeting, according to its calendar. Absent from the calendar is any commemoration of the 9/11 attacks. It was also nowhere to be found on the programming docket for Sept. 11, 2011, despite it being the 10-year anniversary of the attacks.

"It does kind of surprise me," says Toledo senior Vincent Scebbi, the editor-in-chief of the school's student newspaper, the Independent Collegian, who calls the master calendar "a pretty good indication" of campus events.

When Scebbi reported a 10-year anniversary story on 9/11 last year, he asked students what they remembered about the attacks, which occurred when most of them were in elementary school. "A lot of the students were really confused, unsure of the situation," he says. "We were almost too young to really grasp the intensity of the day, in the global context."

Given some college students' lack of context about 9/11, university staff should step up their efforts to memorialize the attacks, according to Scebbi.

"There should be at least, at the bare minimum, some sort of memorial because of how much of an impact September 11 had on our lives," he says. Since 9/11, when his mother goes on business trips, for example, she E-mails Scebbi before takeoff and upon landing. "She just wants us to know that she's safe," he says.

[Learn how high school teachers address post-9/11 stereotypes.]

Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., is another school where neither the staff nor the students planned any 9/11 events in 2011. But unlike at Toledo, the school is making changes this year.

"Many of our students were 6 or 7 years old on September 11, 2001, and were too young to comprehend the tragic events of that day," says Kathleen Plinske, the president of Valencia's Osceola campus. "We realized that if we planned a memorial for September 11 this year, we could help students understand what happened, honor our emergency responders, and invite students to discussions about diversity and acceptance."

This year, the college is partnering with the Rotary Club of Lake Nona, in southeast Orlando—where Plinske is a member—to place 2,977 American flags on campus. That memorial was inspired by Plinske's visit in 2011 to Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., where she saw the school's annual waves of flags memorial, which featured one flag for each 9/11 victim.

"If colleges and universities aren't thoughtful about September 11, it is possible that the tragic events of that day will be 'forgotten' in our students' collective consciousness," Plinske says. "However, I think that September 11 can represent a wonderful opportunity to invite students to a dialogue about diversity, acceptance, and peace."

[See how the effects of 9/11 shape graduate programs.]

But on some campuses, 9/11 commemorations are regular fixtures. Fairfield University, for example, hosts a day-long remembrance that honors the victims of 9/11—including 14 Fairfield alumni—and George Washington University regularly organizes a moment of silence and candle vigil. And some students question the assumption that they're too young to remember the attacks.

"The events of 9/11, and the lives lost that day, are still in the minds of students who were in elementary school when it happened. It is something that generation, as our own, will never forget," says Whit Goodwin, director of student life at Houston Baptist University. The university is currently hosting a 9/11-themed art exhibit.

Mason Estep, a sophomore at Ohio University, was in third grade when the Twin Towers were attacked. He says that young people such as himself may have been impacted more than adults by 9/11.

"I'll never forget the intense feelings of disarray, denial, and confusion I felt when I saw the Twin Towers erupting in flames on the television," he says. "I lived in a bubble of a world until then—an invincible ideal world, in which my country was the only inhabitant."