Welcome to the Real World

On Sept. 11, 2001, one alumna had just started her first year at U-M. She remembers that day.
By Gina Valo, ’05


Read time: 4 minutes

It was 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. I had been on campus for a little over a week and was reveling in the fact that I did not have class until 1 p.m. I rolled out of bed and set out for the long trek to the bathroom. Markley Hall wasn’t exactly the Ritz-Carlton, but I didn’t mind the communal living arrangements. I was just happy to be in college and on my own for the first time.

As I went about my morning routine, another student came in to wash her face. I remember her peering up at me from behind her towel and noticing my disheveled appearance.

“Did you just get up?” she asked. Embarrassed, I admitted to my laziness. “Did you hear what happened?” came her next question. At this point, I was eager to hear the latest gossip plaguing Third Reeves. I thought to myself, someone in the hall must have had a fight with her roommate. No, even better, someone got caught with alcohol.

“No, what happened?” I asked with great anticipation. “Someone blew up the World Trade Center.”

I thought to myself, “Didn’t someone bomb the World Trade Center a few years ago?” It wasn’t until I found a group of my friends huddled around their television that I realized the magnitude of what had happened. It was gut wrenching, nauseating. I went back to my room and turned on CNN for the first time in my life. For the next two hours, I sat alone in my 11-by-11-foot cement block, glued to my television, watching the details unfold. I remember feeling a tear roll down my cheek and realizing that I was crying.

Like everyone else in the modern world, I tried using my cell phone to call my family and a friend who was living in Washington, D.C., at the time. It was impossible to get through. The entire country was in a state of panic and I was scared. What if something else happened? What if this was only the beginning of something bigger?

By this time, most of the women had returned to the hall. Classes had been canceled, and we had nowhere else to go. As I sat at my computer trying to communicate with friends via Instant Messenger, I was startled by the sound of someone screaming. It was the type of wailing that evoked the same response in me that a mother has to her crying baby. I opened my door to find one of the girls curled up on the floor with a phone in her hand. I had not met her before, but I sat on the ground next to her and held her in my arms while we wept together. Nearly an hour passed before she was able to tell me that her uncle had been at the World Trade Center and no one in her family had heard from him.

Later on that day, I headed down to the dining hall for dinner. An eerie quiet permeated the building. Only a few hours earlier, that same room had been filled with the excitement and energy of hundreds of new students experiencing college for the first time. There were no stories about crazy frat parties or terrible professors — just silence. It was almost as if we felt guilty for carrying on with such a mundane task as eating at a time when the world around us was in pandemonium.

Rumors of a candlelight vigil on the Diag began to circulate. Within a few hours, this news had spread to 15,000 people. I walked alongside thousands of students crossing the bridge past the Central Campus Recreation Building and heading toward the Diag. As I approached the massive crowd, I saw a single American flag duct-taped to a piece of plastic piping emerging from the group’s center. I felt like I was filming a movie scene from the 1960s.

A number of University dignitaries addressed the crowd and paid tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks. Various religious leaders followed to offer their perspective on the tragedy. The most moving speech was made by an Islamic leader who told us that “a Muslim is your dad, is your mother, is your teacher, your friend …” and reminded us that we all bleed the same color. The vigil officially ended with a few patriotic songs, and for the first and only time in my college career, I stood with my hand over my heart and said the Pledge of Allegiance.

As the crowd dissipated, I approached the young man who brought the flag and thanked him. He looked at me with tears in his eyes, and without saying anything, he opened his arms to hug me. Looking up at that flag evoked a sense of pride and patriotism I had never felt before, and I felt oddly comforted in the arms of this stranger.

I look back at this time in my life in wonder of the profound effect this event had on me. I was 18 years old, away at college for the first time, and didn’t know a single person. One minute I was learning how to use the washing machine, and the next I was discussing international politics. Rather than easing into a new stage of my life, these events unfolded as if to say, “Welcome to the real world.”

Gina Valo, ’05, is currently serving as a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She enjoys living in her adoptive city, Washington, D.C.

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