FGCU Professors Responded to 9/11 with 'Messages of Hope, Healing and Understanding' on 11/09/01
In the fall of 2001, Florida Gulf Coast University was still a new school. It only had been open to students for four years, and the campus was still quite small and intimate when 9/11 occurred. While there was no immediate campus-wide response, a group of FGCU professors responded with a campus-wide event on November 9 called "Messages of Hope, Healing and Understanding: The Humanities and Arts Respond to September 11."
Activities included a reading of the names of those killed on September 11, the Preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; oral interpretations, musical interludes and improvisations; a film on the Muslim religion along with a speaker and a panel discussing the events of September 11; interactive sculptural works; and poetry readings.
Mike Kiniry spoke with two of the professors who created the event about that day, and what it was like being on campus at FGCU on 9/11.
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MK: Dr. Maria Roca is chair of the Department of Integrated Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University and a Florida Gulf Coast University founding faculty member. Maria, thank you for coming in.
MR: Thank you for having me.
MK: And Patricia Fay is professor of art and art program coordinator at FGCU and assistant director of its Bower School of Music and the Arts. Patricia, thanks to you, as well.
PF: Thank you. I'm very grateful to be here.
MK: Maria, FGCU was still really new at that time in 2001. Can you just paint a real quick picture of what FGCU looked like then?
MR: We still had very few buildings on campus, there were, of course, Reed Hall and Griffin Hall. And then there was, I guess what's now I can't remember what the other...Howard Hall. And so we were still pretty intimate. There weren't that many students here yet. The faculty still all knew each other really well. It was an intimate campus still.
MK: About how many students approximately? Can you guesstimate? 1500?
MR: No. We would probably at about three or four thousand by then.
MK: Okay. And then you got here shortly thereafter. Or, you got here in August of 2000?
PF: Yes, 2000.
MK: So, Maria, what do you remember of that day here on campus?
MR: So I was going into my 9:30 class, so it was probably about 9:20, 25. One of my students, Astrid Nada, It's a name I will never forget, walked into my classroom and said a plane's been flown into the World Trade Center. We all just sort of stopped in our tracks. We immediately went to the podium to try to bring up live feeds. We were struggling with that. And so we all went over to what was the only food area on campus at that point, as I said, over in Howard Hall. And there was a big TV in there and gathered to watch what was happening and just sort of walked away. And then I needed to get home because my family's from New York and my brother-in-law was in the adjacent building, and one of my husband's best friend's son was a firefighter. And he was on his way home, and they got the call and he went back and he was killed. He was one of the people that went up the stairs trying to rescue people. And his wife was six months pregnant. So he never got to meet his child. So it was a pretty powerful emotional day.
MR: We finally tracked my brother-in-law down, who actually had run all the way from the World Trade Center up to Midtown, went through New Jersey to be able to get back home to Staten Island. So, yeah, it was pretty intense.
MK: Did FGCU shut down?
MR: We did for a couple of days. Yes.
MK: Patricia, what do you remember from that day? Where were you?
PF: I was in my office on the second floor of Reed hall. I think the whole College of Arts and Sciences was in Reed Hall at that time. And I had an interior office and things were starting to come across. The Internet was not what it is now and everything was crashing. Something was happening, but we couldn't get information about it because the Internet was not functional. So Dewey Robinson, our wonderful long time administrative associate in the College of Arts and Sciences in the Dean's office, she ran around the corridors, sticking her head into everybody's office saying something's happened in New York. She had a radio next to her desk. So she was listening on the radio. So we all went, listened on her radio to what happened. And then, similar to Maria, I went over to Howard Hall and sat in what was then the only dining hall on campus for five hours. And the first tower had been hit and we sat there and watched and tried to grasp it. And then the second tower was hit while we were watching. And it was a very intense day. It was a Tuesday. We closed for the rest of the day. We were closed on Wednesday, and then we came back and we knew when we were coming back to students on Thursday and thinking about, how do we process this experience with them in the classroom?
MK: How did you process it with students in the classroom?
PF: Well, I told them what my response had been. And that first night on that Tuesday, I'm a potter, and I teach ceramics and the making of ceramic objects has always been how I understood the world. So I went home to my studio. There's a television in my studio. I had constant coverage running, and I made the first eleven of what would have been what became 100 of these small, beautiful objects, closed forms, bottle forms. And I wanted to imagine them filled with hope in some kind of way. So I would go home at the end of the day and make them every day a certain number of them. And I can tell you the end of that story a little bit later.
But in reference to that period of time, I came in on the Thursday and worked with students and told them what I had done, that I had to go home and make something beautiful in opposition to all of what we were looking at on the television. And the students did really interesting things. They said, 'oh, people don't need art, they need blood donations, they need money.' I thought, all right, well, how can I turn this project into something that will help others?
MK: How did you respond in the classroom, Maria?
MR: So I was teaching communication at the time. And so the goal was to communicate. So in all of my classes I just put my syllabus aside. We made big circles and we made a safe space for people to talk. And I listened. And for many of my students, they had relatives up in New York or friends. And so it just gave them a space to really share what they were feeling with their experiences were, what their questions were because they had a lot of questions they didn't understand. They were 19, 20, 21 years old and up until that point, their lives have been pretty easy, and suddenly they were faced with a threat on their own soil, which was for many of them terrifying. And they just needed some space to talk it through.
MK: Was there an immediate collective response from the university?
MR: Not that I recall. I mean, I guess ours was about the closest thing to a collective response with Tricia and I.
MK: Do you mean the November event?
PF: We were all trying to figure out how to process for a few weeks, and working individually. And like Maria, for my sculpture workshop class, I threw the syllabus out the window and knew that we had to craft a substantive assignment where the students could really grapple with this and then to take it public. So Maria and I moved ideas back and forth with Jim Wolpart and with others. How can we have a commonly shared experience on this campus that will help us to try to get our head around what has happened and what has happened since? So we chose 11/9. We chose November 9th as a day to do that. And the focus would be on interactive student projects and presentations on the campus. So they were spread all across the campus and allowed people to engage and interact and talk.
And, you know, like my sculpture students made specific kinds of projects where you could do interesting things. One had to do with smashing bottles and filling bottles with messages, and others had to do with going into an interactive space and discussing. And we had poetry readings and we had presentations, and it was a really powerful day.
MK: What do you remember from that day?
MR: So my students, again, the communication students put together an oral interpretive program along with the reading of the names. And we set up a big stage in the middle of what was then the central quad. It still kind of is here at the university. And we all found appropriate pieces. I remember one that I read that was actually from the Onion. That was that God came down and said, "I gave you four words, 'thou shall not kill'" and was a whole almost a midrash on those four words and how we needed to respond not from a place of anger but a place of hope and healing and understanding, which was the theme for the day.
And the choice of the date of November 9th was very specific because it flipped 9/11. It was 9/11 backwards. And so we really were focused on trying to find a place of hope, healing, and understanding. And that was a lot of what the pieces were that we were reading that day.
MK: Was that sort of swimming upstream at the time because there was such a collective "we must have retribution. We must have revenge?" Were you in a sense an outlier voice in this mission with your event?
MR: Maybe I was, but I didn't feel that way. And that might have been because I was working with students who needed to feel hope and they didn't want to be angry. At least my students didn't. But perhaps if you were in a different part of campus, that might have been a different feeling, but certainly in the community that I was in, they needed to feel. Especially they were young people, they wanted to hope for their future. They didn't want to feel like they were going to live a life of fear. And we look at what's happened since then, like how much travel has changed. Look at how much so much of our interactions are not what they were before 9/11. And they needed to feel like there was going to be something positive in their future.
MK: Patricia, were you going to say something?
PF: Yeah. The desire for retribution or military response or all of those voices that were circulating immediately after the event was one part of it. I wouldn't say it was the dominant part. I think the dominant reaction was: why do they hate us so much? And grappling with those questions of confusion and perception were really what we were trying to get to is trying to address those feelings of helplessness and of a lack of understanding and of trying to see the world in a way that you never had before.
MK: Which is what educators do.
MR: We try to.
MK: I was reading this press release before we started, and you talked about trying to approach this from the multiple perspectives and that's kind of where you still are today with the interdisciplinary studies thing, right? It's just trying to always commit something with the biggest perspective possible, despite what might be swirling on around you.
MR: Yes. As you know, deeply devoted to integrated studies and to bringing in as many perspectives as possible. And that's all I'd like to say. It's the baking of the cake. It's the new thing that comes when you bring all those persons perspectives together. And I think that that happened that day. We had political scientists, artists, poets. We really brought this huge range of people together to try to make some sense out of what was an incomprehensible experience for us on this planet.
MK: Before we say goodbye, you didn't finish your pot story. Why did you choose this particular form?
PF: Right? These are small, handheld, beautiful bottle like objects. And I ended up making 100 of them. And I had multiple sales opportunities. I signed them all with just 9/11 on the bottom so they weren't about me, they were about the event. And I would sell them to people. They were all $25 with a message about finding hope inside the bottle. And in the course of that year, I would sell them. And the final event happened in June at a wonderful thing in Fort Myers called Art House. I had a certain number left, and I sold them that night and the organizer came up and said, "So how did it go?" And so I stopped and thought. And I had sold the last of these hundred objects nine months and eleven days after September 11th. And with that $2500 that I raised, half of the money went to Save Horizon through the Tower Fund in New York, and the other half went to America's Fund for Afghan Children.
MK: I want to thank our guests, Patricia Fay as professor of Art and Art program coordinator at FGCU and assistant director of the University's Bower School of Music and the Arts. Patricia, thank you so much for coming in.
PF: Thank you, Mike. I appreciate it.
MK: And Dr. Maria Roca is chair of the Department of Integrated Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University and a Florida Gulf Coast University founding faculty member. Maria, thank you.
MR: Thank you so much for having me, Mike.