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St. John’s starts afresh near ground zero

Jamaica, Queens, N.Y.

After four months of upheaval and mourning during which St. John’s University’s new Manhattan campus served as a hospitality center for thousands of recovery workers from ground zero, school officials are anticipating the campus’ return to academic life this month.

St. John’s new School of Risk Management had begun only its fourth day of classes Sept. 11 when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center towers, two blocks from the campus.

After the area around the towers was evacuated, most of the students from the Manhattan campus finished the semester at the university’s main campus in Jamaica, Queens. Only a handful chose to withdraw.

Classes in Manhattan are to resume Jan. 14 now that the building’s air quality has been thoroughly tested and certified safe on all 10 stories.

“I don’t care if we have 20, 30 or 50 students returning,” said Victor Ramos, director of the Manhattan campus. “St. John’s waited 130 years to find the right partner and to open a Manhattan campus” for business studies, he told NCR. Ramos oversaw the integration in May of St. John’s with the College of Insurance, becoming the School of Risk Management. Nearly 300 students enrolled in the school’s courses its first semester.

Pamela Shea-Byrnes, associate vice president for university ministry, hopes that the “resilience” of St. John’s mostly blue-collar students and their ability to weather hard times before getting into the university will bolster them as they start afresh around the corner from ground zero.

The attack robbed St. John’s University of 72 alumni and of 36 family members of its students, faculty and staff. All worked in the two towers or had gone to rescue those attempting to flee.

“We educate working-class students and the children of immigrants. They get degrees and join the fire department and police force. Some go into business,” Vincentian Fr. Donald Harrington, St. John’s president, told NCR after a Mass at the Queens campus last month memorializing the 108 who died.

For firefighters, police, emergency rescuers, telephone and cable repair workers and iron and steel crews working at ground zero, St. John’s Manhattan campus became a hospitality center during 10 weeks of grim recovery work.

The swift action of the building’s chief engineer, Ram Paray, in shutting down the school’s heating and air-conditioning system on the morning of the attack, saved the system from sucking in soot and dirt, unlike those in almost every other edifice in the neighborhood of the twin towers.

The university offered the Manhattan campus to the city just days after the disaster. By Sept. 24 the building’s first two floors had been transformed into an American Red Cross rest and recreation space.

Ramos said the school’s airy, bright setting provided a physical and psychological “oasis” from the grim tasks of hunting for body parts and removing 250 to 300 truckloads of rubble per day.

The Red Cross provided more than 200 workers to staff the center around the clock. During the 69 days that the building was used as a respite area, the workers served more than a half-million hot meals.

Volunteers helped to convert a classroom into a storage closet of replacement shirts, trousers, boots, gloves and masks. Another classroom has six computers with Internet access and 16 recliner chairs surrounding eight television monitors where workers enjoyed a prize fight, the World Series, football and basketball games.

In a third classroom 25 beds were assembled for naps, massages and chiropractic adjustments. Workers could also shower, telephone and e-mail their families, attend daily Mass in the chapel or just chat.

The tragedy revealed “the best in everyone,” said Vincentian Fr. James Maher, vice president for university ministry. A great opportunity arose for people to transcend their natural routines and rise to help others. In their response, Maher said he recognized “tremendous power and beauty” and saw “a great example of how God is present in our lives.”

Even after the Manhattan campus reopens and things return to “normal” on all St. John’s campuses, Sept. 11 will remain a watershed experience for the institution, Maher said, a “paradigm-changing” event that will not go away quickly. After “such trauma and violation, what?” the priest asked.

“We’re all forever changed by these deaths in ways that we know and don’t know,” he said. Maher attended seven funerals in 10 days -- “all of them gut-wrenching. … We die, but we die living life.” At the university, in houses of worship and around family tables, people are gathering to focus on life, Maher said.

As Shea-Byrnes sees it, St. John’s students are looking for answers in the wake of Sept. 11. “Shame on us if we don’t use this moment to educate their minds and hearts.”

Shea-Byrnes and 14 colleagues in campus ministry traveled from Queens to the Manhattan campus Dec. 11 to attend a Mass in the school’s chapel. They prayed for the returning students and discussed how to reclaim the space for education in the wake of the devastation all around.

The most important way for students to feel in control of their changed surroundings is “to be able to find God in the midst of all the good and the evil, and to find and be God for each other,” Shea-Brynes said.

Since Sept. 11 Shea-Byrnes and her colleagues in campus ministry have helped those who lost a loved one as well as some of the hundreds of students who saw the towers fall and are still shaken by the magnitude of the events. They have also reached out to Middle Eastern and Islamic students -- more than 200 attend St. John’s -- and to those who were abruptly transplanted from Manhattan to Queens.

Many students witnessed horrors from which it may take years to recover.

Javier Cortez, a freshman at the Manhattan campus, watched 15 people fall to their deaths. He told the campus newspaper, The Torch, “I wish I hadn’t seen everything.” In the three or four seconds in which the victims were falling “you had time to realize what they were wearing,” he said.

Jim Sheehan, director of the Career Center at the Staten Island campus, said students are still trying to adjust to the horrors they witnessed Sept. 11.

“They’re refocusing their priorities and beginning to look at relationships more, even their relationship with God,” Sheehan said. Of the 72 alumni deaths, 18 were from Staten Island, including one 2001 graduate. Faced with the “fragility of life, they’re asking more questions about the purpose and meaning of life.”

For countless St. John’s business students, working in the twin towers represented the pinnacle of success. Many of Staten Island’s commuter students have parents who worked in the financial district and who have recently been laid off. St. John’s students still covet careers with prestigious financial services firms such as Morgan Stanley and Deloitte and Touche, which are doing little hiring during the current recession.

Sheehan advises patience to job-seeking students. “Pursue all avenues and don’t get discouraged. If you’re considering two careers, go with your second choice until things open up,” he said. He even recommends relocating, but admits that New Yorkers are highly territorial.

Back in Queens, St. John’s administrators have not finished calculating the impact of Sept. 11 in financial terms, said Fisher. “Our focus has been on the human impact and the need to get students back to class as quickly as possible.” After suspending classes on the morning of the disaster, the university reopened on Sept. 13. By Sept. 17 students from the Manhattan campus were back in classes, even though many of their professors live in New Jersey and had to spend three hours commuting to Queens.

With its reopening, the School of Risk Management becomes St. John’s fifth campus, adding its enrollees to the 15,600 students studying in Queens and the 2,840 in Staten Island. Besides these locations, St. John’s also has a presence in Oakdale, Long Island, where it has taken over LaSalle Academy, formerly operated by the Christian Brothers. The university runs a study-abroad campus in Rome, bringing its total enrollment to 19,000 students, and making it one of the largest Catholic universities in America.

Patricia Lefevere is a special report writer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2002