On Monday night, a gunman killed three Michigan State University students and injured five more. The devastating shootings took place in two buildings that had once, in essence, been my undergraduate homes. Berkey Hall was the site of extracurricular gatherings, nighttime group projects, and a few writing and history classes I particularly loved. The MSU Union was a go-to for Biggby Coffee in the mornings, euchre tournaments and music gigs in the evenings, quesadillas with friends during late nights, thick Dairy Store ice cream over the weekends. For all four years, I resided in dorms and apartments off the north end of MSU’s humongous campus. Everything my friends and I needed was just blocks away, an ideal zone for a bunch of still-immature rapscallions. We distracted ourselves with cheap Coors Light pitchers instead of figuring out our lives.
It wasn’t just our thoughts on the post-recession, post-Occupy job market that we drank away; frankly, death was always somewhere in the background. The Sandy Hook mass shooting occurred the year before we started at MSU. Soon after we entered campus, a student was shot dead in an apartment complex where some friends lived; we subsequently fretted over erroneous police alerts as well as anonymous threats deployed through ostensibly funny apps like Yik Yak. The concurrent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement made us think twice about our local police. I studied abroad in Paris and Brussels just months before both were struck by terrorist attacks. The statewide spike in hate crimes that coincided with Donald Trump’s political rise spurred students of color and LGBTQ students to look over their shoulders just a bit more often. A famed doctor was found to have abused hundreds of athletes, and administrators had let it slide.
We wanted so desperately to merely enjoy the bounty of public-space pleasures Michigan State had for us, to worry not as we trekked through the lush, expansive grounds: the Red Cedar River, the trees and picnic areas, the open buildings, the surprisingly delicious cafeterias, the tailgate outposts, the rec centers, the basketball courts with netless hoops, the student sections. But, at a certain point, that couldn’t be. After 2016’s Pulse Nightclub shooting, a friend shared his worry that eventually, we might just never be able to go outside again. Not that anyone in power registered those concerns. They moved on while we graduated, in 2017, right into a world that did nothing to allay those fears.
That ever-threatening violence was never as potent for us as it was for the students who came after. Some hailed from school battlefields themselves, including Oxford High School and Lansing, right next door to MSU. By 2019, 95 percent of American K–12 schools were conducting active-shooter drills, fostering the lasting feelings of hurt, alertness, and fear that students couldn’t help but bring with them to college. And none of those drills had prepared them for what happened Monday. “We’re used to public school shooting drills, but university shootings are so different,” my sister, a current Michigan State undergrad, told me Tuesday. The area is larger, the population much bigger, the misinformation transmission more rampant, the murderous possibilities heightened.
Many of those on campus also had to endure the early-pandemic lockdowns that robbed them of the most basic joys and benefits of college: in-person interaction and instruction, student spaces, collective projects, big stadium events. By the time preventive measures receded, kids were no doubt excited to get back to the true university experience. But when a virus could no longer keep them at bay, the guns certainly could. My sister told me how she and her friends were so excited to return to in-person education that they’d forgotten about the outside world—the violence that seemed to escalate even as a different emergency was subsiding. From here on, some of them may avoid particular buildings or parts of campus, or are thinking of dropping out altogether.
In retrospect, my class was endlessly lucky to have the college life we enjoyed. None of us carried the weight of school-shooter drills; none of us were denied face-to-face collegiate opportunities; none of us graduated into economic disaster. We faced the grim nature of our reality and adjusted to it, but couldn’t hope to understand how much darker things would get.
East Lansing is quite different these days. Michigan State has shuffled through three different presidents in the six years since my graduation. Glitzy new apartments and storefronts abound alongside the streets. E-scooters are everywhere, as are painted bike lanes. The Music Building, where my sister now studies, got an astounding upgrade.
These changes have been complicated—often good, sometimes confusing. Yet no matter how modern the 19th-century campus grounds look, one thing hasn’t changed: the ties and strength of the community. A giant, historic, diverse landscape like MSU can’t help but define the region in which it stands. Michiganders from the cities, suburbs, forests, lakesides, government halls, and tiny towns that surround the university for miles head there to learn, work, walk, play, eat, drink, party, dance, compete. There are opportunities and spaces for everyone, all ages, all creeds, all affiliations. Students fly in from Somalia, India, and China to study here. And MSU sends its people back to Michigan and the rest of the world in turn. You don’t have to ignore the very real issues to marvel that a place like this even exists.
I still know many people at MSU: undergrads, grad researchers, faculty, employees of various departments, alumni who cannot miss the big football games. I even know someone recovering in the hospital, having been injured in the shooting. I love these people dearly. I know they’ll demonstrate grit and strength, as they’ve always done.
But I wish they didn’t have to do it so often. And it hurts to realize the pain that today’s MSU generation feels from everything they’ve had to face, the experiences and issues that I evaded only by chance. The students are already planning protests, my sister informed me, but how many of these will they need to do? Why does nobody care, why are their lives consigned to mere chance? A world that seemed hopelessly violent to me when I first walked by the Red Cedar only seems more so to those who are now scared of even going to class. Real people are getting hurt, and the magical occurrences that a place like Michigan State can inspire will suffer, too. Every gunshot is a step toward a more fearful, less open world. It can always get worse.