On Oct. 7, students and staff gathered in silence on the Chapel lawn, honoring the victims of the Umpqua shooting. The vigil, sponsored by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, offered the community the opportunity to mourn the deaths of the nine people fatally shot and for those injured, and to stand in solidarity as a community to pay their respects.
Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Sam Speers, an organizer of the event, contributed his thoughts as to why he felt the vigil was necessary for unnerved community members. “A vigil, in the root sense of the word, is a time for paying attention,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “We pay attention to the dignity and fullness of human life, to the wonder that for all of our wonderful differences, we are one people on one small planet. Standing together in silence is one small way of remembering these things.”
For some students, the shooting had a particularly heavy impact. Emmett O’Malley ’19 explained that, for him, the shooting was not simply a far off tragedy. “I’m from Corvallis, Oregon,” he remarked. “Umpqua is 70 miles away. Both my parents work at Oregon State University, and so to me this is pretty scary.”
Students received news of the shooting in different ways. Leader of event planning and activities for the Vassar Christian Fellowship Siennah Yang ’18 suggested that, although many of the victims were shot as a result of their being Christian, these discriminatory shootings only strengthened her commitment to her church and her religious convictions. “[Response to the shooting] integrated me into my community a lot more both on campus and off campus. Going to church connects me to a lot of community members and to initiatives in the community such as local projects.”
Yang remarked that the vigil and other affirming responses to the shooting allowed her and many Christians on campus a place to talk about issues that they face on the basis of their identity. “Part of being a Christian is knowing what’s happening around you. We pray a lot and debrief about these issues a lot. Through prayer it is something that we address…Whether you are religious or not, attending the vigil is just a part of being part of the movement and being aware of what’s going around you. It’s important for anyone to be a part of that. It’s pertinent to our lives.”
Spencer Virtue ’16 posited that the vigil gave him the chance to unite with other Christians in solidarity against religious discrimination and violence. “For all those who would never stand for this and who have a moral compass, let’s come together and have solidarity in our own way,” he said. “Let’s have our own community to stand up against this in the same way that folks in the classroom stood together.” Virtue proposed that by attending the vigil, he felt more capable of overcoming the unease that news of the tragedy had on him. “[We move forward] not by letting the enemy fragment us, not by letting the enemy intimidate us, but by letting us come together and deal with these emotional things as a community. That’s how people learn.”
While students and faculty alike are affected in distinct and various ways, there exists disagreement in taking institutional measures to prevent future shootings. In response to the question of what is responsible for mass shootings, O’Malley said it was due to the mass availability of guns— particularly more technologically advanced ones—and the lack of stringent gun laws.
“I think it’s cultural,” O’Malley elaborated. He suggested, like many others, that current gun laws in America are anachronistic, stemming from Revolutionary Era social and political issues and surviving due to special interest groups. “We’ve had this massive evolution of gun technology and no progress on our gun laws. It’s obscene. It’s pathetic. It’s a national embarrassment. Having a handgun is important because there are a lot of guns out there, and it’s a good tool for self-defense. Hunting rifles are also okay. Outside of those two, ban them all.”
While O’Malley considers current gun laws to be part of the problem regarding gun violence in American schools, Virtue remarked that he considers them to be the greatest form of protection, and part of the solution. “We have security guards with no knives, no pepper spray, no batons, so there’s no use in patrolling for an active shooter when you’re just going to get shot. I understand that some students feel uncomfortable with having armed security, but that being said, no one has a problem with the president having armed security nor banks nor public buildings.”
Rather than pursuing the issue from a federal perspective, Spencer argued that it falls on colleges and universities to protect themselves. “Our security guards have to be armed in some way like the University of California schools and most public schools in the country where there is actually a campus police force.”
While gun control remains a controversial issue, the need for increased mental health support and awareness is agreed upon on both sides. Both O’Malley and Virtue expressed their appreciation for the recent upgrades to the counseling services in Metcalf House, and advocated for greater mental health awareness and care from the College and from the country at large.
Director of Counseling Services Wendy Freedman offered her sympathy for community members distressed by the shooting. “It is understandable that the members of our community would feel impacted by the many stresses in their lives and in the world, and we strongly encourage everyone to engage in good self care practices and to reach out for support.”
Freedman suggested ways that Vassar students can help to reinforce the health and safety of students. She remarked, “The Vassar community excels at looking out for one another and we encourage members to continue referring students to campus resources and to alert the Student Support Network if you are concerned about a student’s well being. Faculty, staff and administrators can contact the Employee Assistance Program for access to free short-term counseling as well as referrals for other work or life needs.”