For J.D. Bowers ’89, an assistant professor of history at Northern Illinois University, college campuses have always been a place where the free exchange of ideas was a welcome and secure tradition.
p. But after last week’s fatal shootings at NIU, Bowers says these beliefs have been shaken to the core.
p. Last Thursday afternoon, Bowers and the entire NIU community experienced tragedy when a lone gunman opened fire on a large lecture class in Cole Hall, killing five students and wounding 17 others before taking his own life.
p. Bowers, who was in his office when the shootings occurred, received a call from a student at 3:12 p.m. After explaining that there had been a shooting, she asked what he thought she should do. Bowers told her to remain where she was and stay safe, then ran down the hall to the history department office, which overlooks Cole Hall.
p. “Students were fleeing … some were down on the ground bleeding, paramedics were already on the scene, and police officers in full gear, with high-powered rifles and flak jackets, were everywhere,” he said. “At least two students were down and visible in our line of sight, just across the bridge. Even through the closed windows of a seventh floor office, I could hear the sirens of the arriving emergency vehicles — police, fire, ambulances — and sense the fear.”
p. NIU’s emergency plans, instituted in light of last spring’s Virginia Tech shootings, were implemented. Bowers’s building and the rest of campus were immediately placed on lockdown.
p. In the aftermath of that afternoon, Bowers received more information on the shootings. They had taken place in the very classroom in which he had lectured to 325 students every Monday and Wednesday during the previous semester. Friday, Bowers received a “most shocking revelation.” He learned that one of his honors students from that class had been a victim.
p. “I can tell you where she sat, who she sat with,” he said. “I take my honors students to dinner, try to do all the same things my professors did for me. Now this student is gone … On Valentine’s Day she entered that classroom as a 19-year-old college freshman, full of hopes and dreams, and she never left the classroom alive.”
p. As students and professors prepare to return to classes on Monday, the university has received an outpouring of support from various other universities — Virginia Tech in particular, which sent staff and counselors to aid in NIU’s recovery.
p. “It’s a terrible fraternity to be in, but it’s nice to know we’re not the only ones,” Bowers said. “They can tell us where we’ll be tomorrow, in a week, in six months.”
p. In talking and meeting with students this week, Bowers is challenging them to seek solutions in the wake of such tragedy.
“I ask them ‘What are you going to do? What action will you take? What does this moment mean for us as a community and as a larger group of humanity? How do we rectify gun culture with a culture of life and liberty?’” he said.
p. Though he lacks the answers, Bowers hopes to “preserve this moment that we may remember it in the future” — hoping, in particular, that his alma mater will benefit from his story. “I now feel that I must call this to the attention of others,” he said. “And as much as NIU has come to mean to me in my six years here, I would never want William and Mary, my home, to fall victim to this type of event.”