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Sept. 11 Graduates Enter New World


Today is graduation day at Barnard College in New York City. The class of 2005, all women, began their college lives just as the World Trade Center was attacked. Today and tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg speaks with graduating seniors from the Manhattan schools she herself attended in very different times.


Barnard is an urban college. It's far north of the World Trade Center up on 116th Street across Broadway from Columbia University. Barnard is leafy in places, and there are brick walkways between the mix of new and sturdy-looking old ivied buildings. The small campus bustles with intent students and faculty. In the fall of 2001, the brand-new freshmen of Barnard College included three young women who became fast friends in the aftermath of tragedy. They're in our New York studio.

Good morning to you.

Group: (In unison) Good morning.

STAMBERG: Courtney Zenner, you are from?

Ms. COURTNEY ZENNER (Barnard College): Englewood, Colorado.

STAMBERG: And Liz Moore from?

Ms. LIZ MOORE (Barnard College): Framingham, Massachusetts.

STAMBERG: Julie Valka, you were born in New Jersey, but your parents live?

Ms. JULIE VALKA (Barnard College): In Prague.

STAMBERG: OK. So all of you had been at Barnard in orientation and then at classes for two weeks before the attacks. You've become close friends. How much do you think that the attacks had to do with that, I mean, the fact that you were together when you heard the news, and you have lived together now, stayed together for these four years?

Ms. ZENNER: This is Courtney. I think that we experienced such a range of emotions together, from fear to stress to panic to great sadness. We shared tears together in our second week of school, and many of us share the same political views because of it I think.

STAMBERG: Well, explain that, somebody.

Ms. MOORE: This is Liz. I think for one thing, immediately after September 11th, the question came up: Why? And it caused me and it caused a lot of my friends to take the kind of classes that it never would have occurred to me to take before September 11th. I'm taking--this semester, I'm taking a history of the modern Middle East class, and I've also taken international politics, dynamics of American politics, and I'm an English major. These are not classes...


Ms. MOORE: ...that would normally--you know, I would have taken.

Ms. ZENNER: Julie, do you want to answer that?

Ms. VALKA: I followed the premed curriculum. Nonetheless, even in the science courses, 9/11, especially in psychology, of course, became part of the dialogue.

Ms. ZENNER: This is Courtney. I would say that I think that in a political sense, the attacks and kind of the reaction to it made me want to kind of seek a path that led to peace, and as a result, my classes kind of reflected that, you know, colloquium on non-violence. I also started pursuing religious studies and kind of questioning the deeper--I don't know--questions of life.

STAMBERG: But you know what strikes me listening to you? Of course, you would go through a period of shock after the attacks and mourning and grief. But then what you did with that was go and change the things you studied. In other words, you were saying, `How could this have happened?' and then you went to push to find out what the background was, to use your education that way.

Ms. MOORE: This is Liz. I think it was so shocking, it was so unbelievable that it could happen, for one thing, because of the way our public schools teach us. When I was in high school, I took ancient and medieval history, and we learned about Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent. And then our focus shifted almost exclusively to Europe, and I think one reason it was so impossible for us to comprehend why this had happened is because we can't remember more than five years into our past.

STAMBERG: And what about going home for the holidays? Now you've had four years of doing this. Do you find that you are very different as a result of this from high-school friends who went to colleges that are not in New York City?

Ms. VALKA: This is Julie. Two of my closest friends--one went to school in Ohio and one was in school in upstate New York, and I did feel very different from them when we had come back. I mean, I was sort of in the center. I was part of what the target was. We didn't have to see the events unfold on TV. We were all witnesses together, whereas my friends who went to school elsewhere saw it on TV, and there is that distance.

STAMBERG: Did any of you have a problem after this about feeling optimistic?

Ms. MOORE: This is Liz. I did. I felt sort of this overwhelming sense that I could never be safe again living in New York, which was disturbing because I had this great new sort of profound love for the city, and at the same time, all I had really known of Manhattan was Manhattan in chaos.

STAMBERG: After graduation, some of you will work, some of you will go on to graduate school. What about making your careers, and have those decisions, in any way, been shaped by what you've lived through?

Ms. VALKA: This is Julie. I actually think there is part of what we have lived through that sort of resonates within me. I would like to go into public health, and I think that seeing what happened in terms of September 11th, I would like to reach out to a greater population in terms of medicine, and so I guess I would say that September 11th or just events on such a large scale have shaped the way that I would like to sort of frame my life and my career.

Ms. ZENNER: This is Courtney. I would say that the events of September 11th definitely have an impact on that. This summer, I'll be leaving, a trip, a cultural education trip in Tibet, and part of that trip is Buddhist philosophy teaching, and I think that since September 11th, since witnessing the suffering and just the agony and chaos, I've felt a pretty deep need to either help others to kind of reduce suffering in their lives or to help people find a place of peace, and I think that whatever path my career takes, that will be my focus.

Ms. MOORE: This is Liz. I'm concentrating in creative writing, and I've written since I was very small, and I think after September 11th, I was working on a series of short stories that suddenly took a turn for the terribly tragic after September 11th, and I think that if my dream is to be a writer, I feel that my stories and my writing will always kind of be imbued with this sense of tragedy and of the immense capacity for human suffering. I guess that's a pretty grim outlook on the course of my writing. Hopefully, it will recover and I'll be able to write some little comic pieces or something, but for the time being, I'm sticking with pretty serious themes in my writing.

STAMBERG: Yes. Thank you, all, very much. Liz Moore, Julie Valka, Courtney Zenner, members of the Barnard College class of 2005, graduating today.

Congratulations to you all.

Ms. ZENNER: Thank you.

Ms. MOORE: Thank you.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we'll hear from members of the LaGuardia High School class of 2005. 9/11 was the very first full day of classes at their Manhattan school.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Stamberg
Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.