With this mix of sadness for those who were lost and hope for the ones who go on, the Virginia Tech family celebrated graduation on May 11 and 12. Four weeks after Seung-Hui Cho killed 27 students, 5 faculty members and himself in a campus rampage, university officials handed out 5,000 degrees, including posthumous diplomas given to the families of victims. Relatives also received class rings during a ceremony in Virginia Tech's football stadium May 11. "Our spirit, our Hokie spirit, has remained strong," University President Charles Steger said in his address. "Please know that moving on is not the same as forgetting. We will not forget."
For many graduates the hardest part was allowing themselves to feel happy and proud. "Seeing those parents get their kids' degrees, it made me feel bad about getting a diploma," says Chris Geruso, 22, who received a B.S. in engineering. "I know I earned it, but you just feel bad for the people who didn't get the chance to finish it out."
Senior Kevin Tyler Sterne, 22, who was shot three times but survived by tying a tourniquet around his leg, graduated on schedule. He hobbled onstage on crutches to a standing ovation at the College of Engineering ceremony. (In all, 11 engineering students and 3 professors were killed.) At a more subdued service for international studies graduates, 9 slain students were honored with a moment of silence and bell chimes. "I shall miss each one of them," Prof. Edward Weisband told the crowd. "Their empty seats will always remain in any class I teach."
Some survivors who weren't graduating came to root on their friends. "It was nice seeing them and seeing what it'll be like for me next year," says Colin Goddard, 21, who was shot three times and watched the ceremony from a wheelchair. Others chose to stay away. "I'm just trying to get back to normal, but it's a little hard," says Emily Haas, 19, who was grazed twice in the back of her head. "I do still think about everything that happened, but just not as much as I used to."
This difficult balancing act—how much to hold on to, how much to let go—played out all over campus, and especially on the central field that is home to 33 stone-pile memorials for the dead. There even the memorial for Cho—who was not awarded a diploma—has its mementos, including a note, tucked inside a plastic bag, that reads, "I forgive you." This too was one of the themes of graduation weekend. "The kids really surprised me," says Rick Hartman, 45, whose daughter Kristina graduated. "There was some hate, but there was also forgiveness and sadness for what Cho was going through."
In her Blacksburg, Va., home, Renee Cloyd has already placed her daughter's class ring on the mantel beside "a beautiful picture of Austin standing by the ocean," she says. Attending the graduation ceremonies, she feels, was an important step in a long healing process. "On Mother's Day I said three or four times, 'Austin, I want you home,'" she says. "I am continually grieving. But Austin wouldn't want us to just sit around and mope. And we would like for Austin to be proud of us for how we are handling this."
- Wendy Grossman/Blacksburg,
- Sharon Cotliar/New York City,
- Molly Lopez/New York City,
- Kristin Mascia/New York City,
- Nicole Weisensee Egan/Philadelphia.
When it came time for 18-year-old Austin Cloyd to receive her diplomas, three people got up from the crowd in the Squires Student Center and went onstage in her place. Her mother, Renee, wearing Austin's favorite pink pearls and earrings; her father, Bryan, 46; and her brother Andrew, 15, accepted two diplomas (one for each of her majors, international studies and French) and her ceremonial tassels. Then a small bell chimed a single time in memory of Austin, who had died in Norris Hall one month before. "That's when I started crying," says Renee, 45. "But getting her degrees and tassels was meaningful because Austin wanted them and was on her way to earning them. And she would have wanted us to encourage others to move on." Still, says Renee of the ceremony—which fell just one day before Mother's Day—"It broke our hearts."