SU students from Conn. town affected by tragedy reflect, hope town’s reputation can recover
When Anna Hodge’s mother told her there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, she thought it didn’t seem right.
Nothing ever happened in the small Connecticut town the Syracuse University freshman had lived in since she was 3 years old. Nothing would happen when she returned home for Winter Break. It was a town people settled in to raise their families, one that essentially catered to children, said Hodge, a magazine journalism major.
But after turning on the news, she saw that something had happened in her town, and immediately burst into tears.
Reports of a mass shooting — 20 children and six adults dead — flashed on the screen. Newtown, Conn., which Hodge said was previously known only for being the place where Scrabble was invented and for a huge flagpole on Main Street, was now the site of an indescribable tragedy.
“Horrifying barely even scratches the surface,” she said.
Hodge is one of several SU students from Newtown and the surrounding area who are reflecting in the wake of Friday’s shooting. They said they have received support from friends and family at SU and across the country, and that the university is also planning to take steps to show its support.
But in the end, all said they hope their hometown’s reputation is eventually restored.
Megan Sajovic, a senior English and textual studies and English education major, said she kept flipping between news channels as the news was developing.
She said her younger brother, a student at Newtown High School, which is about a mile from the elementary school, sat in lockdown, unsure of what was going on.
Sajovic said she also called her friend at New York University to see if her younger sister and mother — a student and teacher at Sandy Hook — were OK. Both were evacuated and safe, she said.
Throughout the morning, Sajovic said she and others from the area continually posted on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter trying to find the answer to one question: “Why?”
“That’s still what everyone’s still trying to wrap their minds around,” she said. “Why would somebody do this?”
Nick Dickinson was still in Syracuse.
He had an exam later that day, and said he found out about the shooting from someone he knew from Newtown who goes to Pennsylvania State University.
Dickinson, a freshman entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises major, said he immediately sprung out of bed and turned on the television. He said he was in shock; he never believed his home for the past seven years would experience something like this.
At that point, the full details weren’t out yet, and he said he left to take his exam. After reports started to come in that children might be among the victims, Dickinson said his “heart dropped.”
He would later find out that the younger brother of someone he knew in high school had been killed.
But it wasn’t until his return home, when he turned off of the highway and saw the swath of news trucks in the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church parking lot that the full magnitude of the event struck him, he said.
On Saturday, he said he attended a service at the church honoring the victims. With rumors that the Westboro Baptist Church is planning to protest in Newtown, he said there is talk of holding a silent counter-protest.
The sense of unity is something Dickinson said he has experienced since he moved to Newtown in 2005.
“There definitely was a strong sense of community even before this terrible event,” he said. “But this tragedy has only brought us closer as a community.”
Hodge, Sajovic and Dickinson all said they received an outpouring of support from family and friends, including members of the SU community.
Sajovic said her phone was ringing off the hook with calls and text messages. People involved in the same organizations she’s in as well as her teammates on the SU Women’s Club Softball team reached out, she said.
“It was really nice to know that people away at school — four hours away — were hearing about this situation and wondering about what was going on,” she said.
Hodge said she hasn’t been able to escape the event, but received many heartfelt messages from her friends from SU and the West Coast asking how she was doing after they found out.
Hours after the shooting, Senior Vice President for Public Affairs Kevin Quinn released the following statement on behalf of the university:
“Chancellor Cantor and the entire SU family mourns with our nation and we keep those affected by today’s tragic events in Newtown, CT in our thoughts. The U.S. and SU flags in front of Hendricks Chapel stand at half-staff in memory of the innocent children and educators who were lost today.”
Quinn said SU is in the process of identifying students and alumni from Newtown and the surrounding areas and is planning to reach out to them.
Counseling services through places such as Hendricks Chapel will remain the same as usual, he said, and are available to students who wish to use them.
The SU flag will also fly at half-mast until Tuesday, the same length of time the American flag will fly at half-mast at the order of President Barack Obama, Quinn said.
Members of the SU Alumni Club of Connecticut are also making efforts to help out the families of those affected by the tragedy.
Alumnus Peter Gianesini’s wife, Julie, is making use of her position as coordinator of the Hartford, Conn. chapter of nonprofit group Project Linus — an organization that collects hand-made blankets for critically ill and traumatized children.
The organization is trying to collect enough blankets for every child in Newtown, an effort prompted by a call from the group’s national coordinator, Gianesini said.
He said the group collected blankets after the shooting in Aurora, Colo., but noted how different it feels when something like this happens “in your backyard.” The Hartford chapter is working directly with the Danbury, Conn. one as well, he said, and is receiving help from chapters across the United States as well.
Though this is not directly related to SU alumni, Gianesini said the president of the SU Alumni Club of Connecticut has offered to help, and he and the former alumni club president have reached out to their contacts for support.
Hodge, the freshman magazine journalism major, said she used to tell people she’s from “a small town in Connecticut,” but now when she mentions Newtown it will unavoidably have a much heavier connotation, one that’s bound to resonate with them.
Dickinson, the freshman entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises major, said he finds it strange his town has been put on the map by something like this, mentioning he used to describe where he was from as “a little town outside of New York City.”
All three students acknowledge people will now come to associate their town with the shooting, but they hope this will change as time passes.
“I’m just hoping people realize that this town is a lot more than what’s been displayed on the news for the last day and a half or so,” said Sajovic, the senior English and textual studies and English education major. “It still really is an idyllic New England town with good schools, and good athletics and good people.”
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