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DeKALB – Jacqueline Do feels like she’s living out more than her dreams. Do, 22, was one of the first recipients of the Forward, Together Forward Scholarship. The five annual scholarships were established in 2009 in memory of Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace and Daniel Parmenter – the five students who lost their lives in the mass shooting Feb. 14, 2008, at Northern Illinois University.
“I feel really blessed to be able to have that opportunity to carry out their names,” said Do, a junior pre-med student at NIU. “I feel like I’m living their dreams a little bit.”
The unfulfilled promise of Dubowski, Garcia, Gehant, Mace and Parmenter are at the forefront of many people’s thoughts this weekend as NIU and the greater DeKalb-Sycamore community prepare to mark two years since the shooting. Former NIU student Steven Kazmierczak walked into the East Auditorium in Cole Hall shortly after 3 p.m. Feb. 14, 2008, and opened fire, killing the five and injuring at least 19 others, before turning the gun on himself.
“It’s a hard week for us here, and for our community,” NIU President John Peters said. “I think people walk a little bit slower, and, hopefully, they treat each other with kindness, which they usually do. It’s a time for remembrance and reflection.”
On Sunday, the campus is holding NIU Remembers: A Day of Reflection.
A laying of wreaths by university officials and family members of those killed will be held at 3 p.m. at the Forward, Together Forward Memorial Garden near Cole Hall. At 6 p.m., a candlelight vigil will be held outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Commons. Peters will make short remarks at each event, and both will be followed by a reception in the Regency Room of the Holmes Student Center.
Peters said Sunday’s events, which he described as dignified, were designed with input from students in Cole Hall during the shooting and family members of the deceased. He anticipates it will be difficult to give remarks Sunday because his words will need to “do justice to the memories of the students and the beauty and the symbolism of our memorial.”
But Peters also has a promise about Sunday.
“No matter how cold it is, how bad the weather is, we will be out there laying the wreath and being at the vigil,” Peters said.
In many ways, life at NIU has gone on as Peters had hoped it would. In the initial days after the shooting, Peters took the words “Forward, Together Forward,” a line from the Huskie fight song, and adopted it as the mantra for the university. NIU would be known not for the shooting, he said, but for the way the community came together to support each other.
Still, there were signs throughout the community this week that Dubowski, Garcia, Gehant, Mace and Parmenter are far from forgotten. In front of DeKalb City Hall, there was a wooden sign that reads, “DeKalb Police Remember 2/14/08,” followed by the names of the five students killed. At Glidden Campus Florist on Lincoln Highway, staff were getting ready to donate 10 percent of all proceeds from Sunday’s business to the Office of Support and Advocacy. Several businesses still have “Forward, Together Forward” posters in their windows.
Students from Huskies United – a student group formed after the shooting with the intent of uniting the campus community through service – were in the Holmes Student Center on Friday making 4,000 black-and-red ribbons to pass out at a basketball game this weekend and at Sunday’s memorial events.
“It’s a way for us to remember and reflect. We feel it’s important for our school to remember,” said Justin Kuryliw, president of Huskies United.
“Everyone who had anything to do with the tragedy felt connected and like a family,” student Ryan Sego said. “We wanted to keep that alive.”
For some on campus, the shooting is part of their daily life. The Center for Support and Advocacy was created to serve those most affected by the tragedy, including those who were in Cole Hall and close friends of those killed – as well as the families of the deceased.
That includes everything from counseling to academic support to just providing a place for them to unwind, CSA Director Scott Peska said. They also have started offering programs for alumni.
There’s also a Student Programming Board, which plans programs like outings to sporting or cultural events and movie nights for CSA students, Peska said. On Thursday, junior Jill Thomas and senior Victoria French – both of whom where in the classroom during the shooting – were in the center with two others, making scrapbrooks.
French, a senior from Elgin studying child development, said talking about the shooting this week was emotional for her, but it wasn’t as hard as last year.
“I agree,” said Thomas, a junior from Elgin who is studying public health. “We’ve been through the one-year. Honestly, it feels like we just got done with the one-year. I can’t believe two years has gone by.”
French was unsure if she would attend this weekend’s memorial events, but Thomas said it’s important for her to be there.
“I won’t view it as Valentine’s Day,” Thomas said. “My friends will celebrate it, but I’m kind of like, I don’t really think there’s something for me to celebrate about. It’s kind of paying tribute to that day.”
Peska said the campus is prepared for the two-year marker. He has done presentations to students who were not attending NIU when the shooting occurred, and he said they want to be a part of the camaraderie that was born from the tragedy.
“They know about it, and they know it’s part of NIU, and that it has become part of our strength,” agreed Peters. “They know that there are certain things about NIU as a result of that, like caring for each other, a commitment to service, persevering, caring for the community. That’s in the culture.”
Healing from the shooting varies depending on the person, Peska and Peters said. Some don’t ever talk about it, others talk more openly.
Getting $8 million from the state to renovate Cole Hall is a big step for the campus, Peters said, because it will continue to facilitate healing from the shooting, as well as meet academic needs. And NIU’s report of the shooting will be released at end of month, Peters said.
“It’s a matter of timing and making sure that we analyzed everything we needed to analyze at that point in time,” he said. “These things are never over.”
Students are approaching Sunday in a variety of ways. Kuryliw, who was in another portion of Cole Hall during the shooting, said some people feel the need to be on campus, while others purposely are avoiding campus because they don’t want the memories.
“I’m kind of nervous about it,” said Sego, who was in the Health Services Center when the shooting happened and saw medical staff frantically responding to the shooting. “It hurt so bad when it happened. I don’t want to revisit it.”
Kuryliw said he has been dreading this week, but he was dealing with it better than last year.
“Last year, there was the unexpected, we aren’t sure how we are going to feel at that point,” Peska said. “This year, we know that it may be difficult but we at least know what emotions we may have.”
For Do, the shooting occurred not only at her university, but in her hometown. The shooting changed her, she said, making her become more open about sharing her thoughts and feelings since the shooting.
“I look at life as full of opportunities, Do said. “I don’t want to regret anything. If I love someone I tell them, like when I’m leaving home, I tell my family I love them.
“The five that aren’t here didn’t get to say those words to their parents or loved ones.”
If you go
What: NIU Remembers: A Day of Reflection
Events: At 3 p.m., a presentation of memorial wreaths will be made at the Forward, Together Forward Memorial Garden. People can gather at 2:30 p.m. in the MLK Commons. A reception will follow in the Regency Room of the Holmes Student Center. At 6 p.m., a candlelight vigil will be held in the MLK Commons. People can gather at 5:30 p.m. A reception will follow in the Regency Room of the Holmes Student Center.
On the Net: www.niu.edu/forward/