Nothing could have prepared me for the experience of returning to my alma mater to cover a mass shooting.
Since graduating from UNC Charlotte in 2012, I’ve been back to campus a few times. Because I was relatively grown when I first arrived there — about 24 when I started, 26 when I finished — and never lived on campus, I had a different college experience than most, but I still treasure that time I spent there, and look back on it longingly.
I was sitting in the CMPD headquarters in Uptown on Tuesday, April 30, when I started getting texts about what was unfolding at UNC Charlotte. I immediately left the department and started the drive to UNC Charlotte, a drive I had made countless times before, but never with that same heartsick feeling that I felt that Tuesday.
I pulled up to the Town Center Plaza parking lot where an email from CMPD had asked that media set up in. For about two and a half hours we stood around waiting to hear details about what exactly had happened. You can read our news feature from this week’s issue for more on how that night progressed.
The next day, I went to campus around 2 p.m. for a press conference. There was a vigil planned on campus for 6 p.m., so I decided to stick around for the rest of the afternoon and wait.
My publisher Justin LaFrancois and I took a stroll around the campus, including by the Kennedy building, where two people were killed and four were injured in Tuesday night’s shooting.
On the steps of the building, one lone bouquet of flowers served as a memorial to the victims. By week’s end, the steps would be covered with flowers.
The flags on campus were at half-staff. In the courtyard outside of Kennedy, students gathered here and there, but for the most part, the campus was very quiet at a time when students should have been everywhere, worried about their final exams with their minds far from concerned with random violence.
I got in touch with Nikolai Mather, an editor at the student-run newspaper Niner Times, where I worked as an Arts & Entertainment editor during my years there. I knew Mather from last year when I interviewed him about his efforts to create an LGBTQ Student Union on campus. I went down to the basement of the Student Union where the Niner Times offices are to catch up with Mather.
Editors and contributors like my former intern Alex Sands, David Clancy and Madison Dobrzenski had been working through the night since the shooting occurred, all the while checking up on contributing writer Drew Pescaro, who had been injured in the shooting and went through surgery that night.
It was a surreal feeling to be back in a place where I had so many great memories, but to be visiting under such a dark cloud. It was easy to forget the reason I was there. I took a selfie with some folks in the newsroom, then rethought the idea of posting it on social media after considering what brought me to campus in the first place.
I know I wasn’t alone in this torn feeling, because it’s something I saw on the faces of so many students later at the vigil in Halton Arena.
Any time you put thousands of college students together in a place that they associate with positive experiences — whether it be basketball games, concerts or graduations — they’re going to want to have fun. Multiple times I watched people recognize someone in the crowd and yell out excitedly to them, or laugh at a joke from a friend while they filed into the building, only to suddenly remember why they were there, then the look of somberness would return to their face.
It’s a terrible thing to feel like you shouldn’t be happy, but it’s a struggle those students will deal with for weeks, months and even years for those closest to the victims.
The end of an academic year should be a time of celebration for these students, yet there they were, packed into Halton Arena together on Wednesday night for the worst of reasons. The shooting will forever be a black mark on their memories of that year.
As time passes, I hope they can all find that balance to remember the victims while remembering to let happiness back in.