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Home > News > Columnists > Alma Urs

A place of love



April 20, 2007

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Coverage: Virginia tech shootout

There is so much pain these days.

Debilitating pain, that weighs us down, and washes over us.

Pain for the students and faculty of Virginia Tech campus. Pain for the fact that in this world violence can creep into even the safest of havens.

For me, as someone who studied at Virginia Tech 26 years ago there is enormous pain that a place I once associated with the happiest memories is now synonymous with violence and carnage.

As we grapple for answers to this unfathomable tragedy I realise there is no place for bitterness. One has to overcome pain and focus on happier times. 

Flash back to 1981: A young, very sheltered and naive student, armed with a congratulatory telegram offering admission and assistantship at Virginia Tech, boarded a flight to the US. That girl was me. I had a prayer on my lips and a heart filled with hope and some trepidation.

Those were the days when most cities in India had no television and the Internet was not heard of.  Except for a brochure and a few letters, there was very little I knew about Virginia Tech. I also had a beautiful, glossy poster of the campus that the university mailed to Mumbai. My father framed it and proudly hung it on his wall for many years to come. 

Roanoke -- where I first landed -- is now the city where the gunman bought the gun he carried out the killings with. But in 1981, it was the gateway to my dreams. It was the 'big city' about 40 miles from Blacksburg and had an airport and some of the bigger department stores.

When I arrived at Roanoke I was very young. I did not know a single soul in the entire northern hemisphere. But I was blessed because from the moment I landed I felt safe and cared for. I was received by a professor from my department at Virginia Tech. He took care of me during my entire stay in the US.  He guided me, mentored me and gave me a home for my first week in the country.

When I moved to an apartment of my own -- as a graduate student one had to live off campus -- it was his wife who took my new roommate and me shopping and helped us set up home. It was the professors who helped us furnish our apartment; they opened their homes to us, and were there for us whenever we needed them. 

My two years in Blacksburg were truly the happiest years of my life and the place and people had much to do with it. Sheltered in the Blue Ridge mountains, living in Blacksburg is like living in a cocoon.  People are kind and helpful. 

Soon I had various groups knocking on the door offering us help with warm clothes for a fast approaching winter. American friends showed me the best all-you-can-eat pizza places on campus.  Indian friends took me to where I could find the spiciest, jalapeno-filled pizzas in Blacksburg.

The Indian faculty reached out to me and invited me over for home-cooked Indian meals. I made some of the best friends of my life at Blacksburg, and they mean the world to me even today.

Most of all, I found love at the Virginia Tech campus. The man I met and eventually married lived a few floors below me in the apartments off campus. He studied a few floors below me too at McBryde Hall.

For us, this tragedy is multiplied by the fact that our first home away from home was Blacksburg. The foundation of our relationship is in Blacksburg. Blacksburg has been the scene of many firsts for us in our lives together. All our earliest memories are in the halls and around the drill-field at Virginia Tech.

It is a sharp blow for us to see bloodstained walkways on television this week. These were the same places where we took our first walk in the snow -- we were Indians, ill-equipped wearing just regular tennis shoes and jeans, walking through snow up to your hips and loving every moment of it, oblivious to words like 'hypothermia' and 'frost bite'.

The Coliseum -- Tuesday's venue of a sombre convocation that President Bush attended and an outpouring of grief and flashed all over the world -- was a place where we rooted for our basketball team amid Hokie chants and the tunes from an enthusiastic marching band. It was a place where our old car got stuck in the mud and snow after a Hokie game many, many years ago.

My heart always raced and my face always lit up with a smile and pride every time I heard or saw the words Virginia Tech on a bumper sticker or on a sports channel discussing the latest Hokie win.

You cannot fathom the sharp pain that jolts me when I hear the same words from the tight, tense lips of grief-stricken reporters. My alma mater is now associated with gun control debates, mental illness discussions, and campus security issues.

These issues are all relevant. Maybe my beloved campus was meant to be the place where these issues are brought to the fore so future generations of students can study safely and peacefully on college campuses around the world, out of harm's way.

My message to the students who woke up on time that morning to attend class, and to the faculty and staff who rushed out the door to reach school: you were doing everything right. There was nothing you could have done differently. Your lives were not in vain. We pray that some good will, one day, comes out of something so bad. 

My message to those out there in the world who have never visited Blacksburg or the Virginia Tech campus, whose view is now coloured by the events of the past few days: you need to know that tucked in the Blue Ridge mountains, where the blue sky meets green rolling meadows and fields there is this cherished campus town where people show love and respect. Where a community opens its hearts and its homes and welcomes even strangers from halfway around the world. Where love can be found in the flaming gold and red leaves in Fall and in the swirling snowflakes in winter.

This is a place where one never locked doors. A place where friends walked in and checked up on one another. Where no one judged another person by the colour of their skin or their alien accent.

This is the Virginia Tech I remember and will continue to cherish. This is the Virginia Tech I tell my children about. This is the place where I learnt values that I instill in my children -- to be non-judgmental, unbiased and without prejudice, to openly accept all kinds of people and open your heart to them.

The world is not the same place it was 26 years ago, but the goodness of people remains. The random act of a single person cannot colour the judgment of the world.  There is enough heartache for those who lived through the tragedy at Virginia Tech this week and for all those associated with this precious university. They need your prayers and strength.  And they also need your ability not to rush to judgment, to label a whole community dangerous because of one devastating act of violence. 

The community at Virginia Tech will rise. You can see their inner strength in the dignity with which students have handled media interviews within hours of being shot at and having watched professors and classmates die. You can see it in the families who've lost children and yet will not be goaded by reporters to assign blame or spew venom on a person who has forever altered their lives.

The Virginia Tech community will rise and grow stronger. The world needs to see this and learn from it. Today the Virginia Tech campus has been branded and sensationalizing by the media as 'the place of the greatest mass killing in U.S. history'. But this is a place where deep love lives as well.  Love will prevail.  It always does.

Alma and Manoo Urs attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg from 1981 to 1983. Manoo now works as a software consultant in San Jose. Alma is a substitute teacher 


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