Tragedy in Las Vegas

Juliette Landphair, Vice President for Student Affairs, University of Mary Washington

October 10, 2017

What does a mass shooting have to do with civic engagement?

A lot.

This past weekend, the worst mass shooting in modern US history occurred in Las Vegas, Nevada. On Sunday night, Stephen Paddock broke out two large windows from his Mandalay Bay Hotel suite, took aim at thousands of people enjoying a country music concert near the hotel, and, over the course of eleven minutes, shot and killed fifty-nine people and wounded hundreds more.

The students, staff, and faculty of University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV), located a few miles from the hotel, reacted swiftly to the horrific news. The University’s arena, the Thomas & Mack Center, opened up to concert evacuees and became a drop-off point for donations. The following morning, UNLV released a statement expressing, in part, gratitude: “The outpouring of generosity has been remarkable. We are…grateful to our faculty, staff, and students for their flexibility and efforts to come together as a university community.” On Tuesday, a campus candlelight vigil attracted over 800 people.

College students struggle to understand violence that disrupts their lives and communities. For young adults in the United States, the ages eighteen to twenty-five is a time of extraordinary growth and identity formation; it is also, according to Professor of Psychology Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, a time of optimism, a strong belief that their lives will eventually land in a good place. When brutality shatters that perception, students yearn to show empathy with those affected by the violence. Their reaction is a reflection of their civic identity, their desire to ensure peers that humanity means compassion and connection and not cruelty.

Of course, it is feels especially unreal when such violence happens on your own campus, where risks such as alcohol poisoning and sexual assault are far more prevalent than gun violence. For those students and for all university members, the literal and figurative explosion of their community throws their institutional identity into upheaval. After the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, thousands of students, employees, and alumni mourned the death of thirty-two fellow Hokies; they also reacted in deep dismay to the association of Virginia Tech, their cherished university, with “massacre.” In the days after the shootings, college students around the nation felt impelled to reach out: Virginia Tech received thousands of condolences and expressions of empathy and love from peers at other institutions. 

Ironically, acts of terror and violence such as the massacre in Las Vegas – designed to destroy – bring people together. This Saturday October 7, UNLV will host San Diego State in football. Director of UNLV Athletics Desiree Reed-Francois explained, "While football is just a game, it can also serve as a rallying point of unity and allow all of us to recognize the incredible heroism displayed by so many this week. We are all extremely proud of our community's response over the last couple of days." Both teams will affix red ribbons to their helmets with these words across the ribbon: “Las Vegas.”

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