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Where We Were, Where We Are: 18 Years After 9/11/2001

Updated: Nov 12, 2019

18 years ago today, four commercial airplanes were hijacked and used to terrorize the United States. The events of September 11, 2001 still impact today's political climate, but with our freshman class consisting of mostly students who weren’t born or who couldn’t possibly remember that day, how does our campus reflect on and engage with the past?

Today, there are numerous staff and faculty members who were already employed as of 9/11. I spoke with Ann Gleason, the Dean of Students and a staff member at Meredith since before the event. Gleason detailed her experience arriving on campus that day, generally unaware of what was happening while she had been driving to work. Her first stop of the day was the LeaderShape exhibition in the Johnson Hall rotunda, where students were showcasing their visions for LeaderShape. It wasn’t until someone on the second floor of Johnson shouted down to students and staff to get to a TV that she was aware anything was wrong. Gleason then says that she went into Dr. Jackson’s office to watch the TV and was there watching when the second tower fell.

When I asked Gleason how the event impacts her today, she says, “It really did have a shift in us thinking about world events and terrorist activities and security— and you guys. That has shaped you in the emergency training that you have and that kind of thing, you’ve grown up in that.” Gleason then encouraged me to speak to Dr. Jean Jackson about her experience, particularly because Gleason was on maternity leave following the birth of her daughter a week after the event.

Jean Jackson recalls her day slightly differently, although many of the details remain the same. Jackson was on the Senior Management Team, which was meeting that morning in the President’s Dining Hall on the second floor of Johnson. During the meeting, one of the Vice President’s secretaries came in to alert the people meeting. The members of the team went upstairs, she says, to the meeting hall where there was a TV.

She recalls watching the TV when the second plane hit. Jackson says that she called Dean Gleason to tell her to watch the TV. Jackson explained to me that as a leader on campus, her job was to organize the campus for support for all students— including Muslim students. “We knew people were jumping to all sorts of conclusions, and we knew we needed to take care of not only the immediate emotion, but some of the physical needs of people.

It was a very frightening time for the Muslim community I think, because people were quick to judge. We said to our students, if you do not feel safe where you are, come on campus. We will find a place for you.” Jackson explained that some students did come onto campus to feel safer thanks to that offer. This goes to show just how caring Meredith was and still is.

The accounts I received from Gleason and Jackson conflicted in small ways, and in-between the interviews I met with Dr. Mark Odekirk, a psychology professor who conducted a study on memory during and in the months following 9/11. His study provided me with insight as to why accounts of that day might not be completely accurate. Odekirk’s study was on the concept of flashbulb memory, the theory that certain impactful events are perfectly clear in someone’s memory in comparison to other types of memory. Odekirk had students write details about the day and the experience. A few months later, students would write what they remembered, and then again several months after that.

Odekirk explains that memories aren’t as perfect as we like to think. Coming from this study, and similar studies, Odekirk says that these memories are “susceptible to errors, [to] forgetting, to inaccuracies,” but that they are said and expressed with much more confidence than other memories. I found this particularly interesting, because both Jean Jackson and Ann Gleason had different recollections of where the other person was during the attack. Not to say either was wrong, but in context of Odekirk’s memory study I realized how much our memories can change. When I asked Odekirk if those memories were influenced by the media sensation it became and politics surrounding the event, he replied, “Absolutely.”

Thanks to my interview with Dr. Odekirk, learning about how memories can be changed regardless of how confident we are, and the conflicting recollections of Dean Ann Gleason and Jean Jackson, I examined the archives of our own Herald for an unalterable peek into that day. Published just one day after the event, the Herald documented the events and emotions on campus.

Front page of the Meredith Herald on Sept. 12, 2001, courtesy of Meredith Library Archives.

The front-page article on 9/11 was co-written by editors Leesha Austin and Jamie Tunnell and primarily covered how the campus was coping with the events. As noted to me by both Gleason and Jackson, the chapel held two nondenominational emergency services for students seeking prayers and spiritual healing during the stress and shock. Professors and staff found ways to use their courses as tools for healing and support. Jackson herself directed her romantic poetry course towards poetry as a means of expressing feelings and processing them. Students in the Model UN class were discussing what had happened and who was behind the attacks the very day it happened, orienting students in a political problem-solving setup. This was how Meredith dealt with it: by being goal-oriented, but empathetic. A community that cared enough to act, but to act in a positive way rather than with aggression towards students. Knowing how deeply ingrained the event was in our culture, and how manipulated American recollection of the event can be, I went to discuss the impact of the events on young muslim students. While these students were either not alive or too young to recall 9/11, the reverberations from it still hit their lives and impact how they’re treated by non-Muslims. The student I spoke with wished to remain anonymous.

When asked if she is impacted by an event that happened when she was so young, she responds with, “Basically? Literally everyone got impacted by that. A lot of people saw our religion as this really violent one, even though certain small groups don’t really reflect on the entire religion.” She goes on to explain that while she has been fortunate enough to not experience any violence, she often notices the way that non-Muslim people look at her and treat her differently. She gestured to her hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women; “I get stares at this sometimes. I don’t really care, but that’s just me. Plus like, other people may get affected, just not me.” She says that while it doesn’t bother her, the experience is noticeable and potentially isolating for Muslim people.

I asked her if her religion has been politicized because of the events of 9/11, and she was quick to affirm. “Terrorism isn’t necessarily religion-related. It’s an act of violence for political reasons, it’s to terrorize people.” Her experience was echoed by other students, and while I was unable to sit down with any other students for an interview, Muslim students I spoke to in passing felt strongly that 9/11 affected the entire country, from how we handle security, to how we treat Muslim people. Every student I spoke to noted that 9/11 was a terrible tragedy, no doubt, but that using the deaths of innocent people as ammo against other innocent people isn’t how we should cope with crisis.

Where will we be the next time tragedy hits? My hope is that this is the mentality Meredith will continue to have, as it has had in the past. My hope is that we will continue to be proactive and empathetic members of our society, as we were, and as we are.

By Savi Swiggard, Associate Editor


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