DeKALB – Jacqueline Do stared at doors for the longest time.
She could only wonder if random violence would walk through the doors of her lecture halls during her freshman year at Northern Illinois University in 2008. She expected stress and changes during her first year of college, but not the kind that comes in the aftermath of a gunman opening fire in a campus building and killing five students.
But as the weeks passed from that tragic Feb. 14, 2008, Do stopped staring at doors and started opening them for a brighter future.
Her fear transformed to determination, hope and a stronger bond with her fellow Huskies. By the time the first anniversary of the shooting approached, Do was named as one of the first five students to receive the Forward, Together Forward Scholarship.
The award was established in 2009 and is given annually to five NIU students who display strong character, compassion, ambition and community service each year. They are given in honor of Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace and Daniel Parmenter, the five people killed in the shooting in NIU’s Cole Hall.
The honor drove Do to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor – a dream she is now only steps away from achieving as a medical student at the University of Pikeville, Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“I can never forget what happened that day,” the 23-year-old DeKalb native said. “This scholarship is a reminder life is short and you have to go out and work to be where you want to be and not waste a chance at living your dream.”
She isn’t the only one doing that.
Several of the other 25 people who have received the scholarship share what receiving the honor has meant to them.
Deidre Cwian remembers the panic she felt Feb 14, 2008, as she prayed for her brother’s safety.
Cwian was a high school senior in St. Charles, but her brother was an NIU student. After letting his family know he was OK after the shooting, he quickly became part of the healing and support process that drew her to NIU, Cwian said.
Now 23 and a graduate student in NIU’s physical therapy program, Cwian said the family spirit that developed on campus in 2008 is still embraced by the students who did not experience the tragedy firsthand. Cwian helped pass that spirit down to other students through her work with the NIU Equestrian Team and Lambda Sigma honor society.
Those efforts, coupled with her optimistic personality, led NIU officials to grant her one of the coveted scholarships.
“It definitely inspired me to live up to what the scholarship means,” Cwian said. “Every day I try to support other members of the NIU community. I live each day to its fullest and just try to be an example of optimism, love and compassion.”
Daihee Cho came to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, in late 2007, determined to follow in the footsteps of his parents and graduate from NIU.
Unfortunately, one of his first experiences with NIU was watching the news coverage of the shooting just months after settling in Illinois.
But he never wavered in his desire to become a Huskie. Now a senior studying accounting, Cho is one of the most visible Huskies on campus. He is involved in organizations such as the residence hall association, student life, honors student association, and numerous committees and advisory boards.
After meeting the families of the victims when he won the scholarship in 2012, Cho said he became more motivated than ever to encourage others to get as involved with the university as he has become.
“I believe winning the scholarship is not a one-time honor, so I still keep in contact with the families,” Cho said. “Sometimes, it gets hard to keep up with everything, but knowing I have this honor and responsibility motivates me.”
Coming from an unemployed, single-parent household can make college hard to afford, which is why Caitlin Cavannaugh was thrilled to be one of this year’s scholarship recipients.
But the $4,000 that comes with the scholarship is not worth as much as the meaning it carries, she said.
The 21-year-old junior from Willow Springs didn’t have a personal connection to the 2008 shooting, but it didn’t take long for her to see the affect it had on the university. Cavannaugh said NIU was initially not a top choice, but the campus atmosphere won her over.
“I didn’t realize the impact it had until I came here. That one event changed the whole university,” she said. “But I feel at home here. That’s just the family feeling you get from going here.”
Cavannaugh, who is studying acting, said she plans to honor the victims’ families, whom she met for the first time a couple of weeks ago. She said she is developing a show with a series of poems, one of which is inspired by Forward, Together Forward.
The endowment for the university’s top scholarship is as strong as ever with $681,493 on hand, according to NIU officials. An additional $82,751 was provided in expendable gifts and all of that money has gone toward the awarded scholarships to continue building up the endowment.
A total of 1,781 donors have supported the scholarship since its inception five years ago. NIU spokesman Paul Palian said the university plans to annually award five scholarships in perpetuity.
“The title of the scholarship says it all. Our best and brightest students apply for this,” Palian said. “It is a way to honor the spirit of those five cherished Huskies we lost five years ago.”