VT shooting: black mark on an otherwise growing reputation

Before Monday's shootings, Virginia Tech had won honors with its influx of foreign students.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The student shooter was from South Korea. The professor who died while trying to stop him was a Romanian-born Jew. The man who captured some of the deadly pistol shots on his cellphone was a Palestinian.

One reason Monday's massacre at Virginia Tech university has become such an international incident is that the university itself has been transformed from a small college populated by what founding president Charles Minor called "plain lads" into a diverse and increasingly international institution. Last year, some 565,000 foreign students attended US colleges and universities. Even here at Virginia Tech, nestled in the deep folds of the Appalachian lowlands, 7 percent of the nearly 28,500 students come from abroad. In some departments, 60 percent of the graduate students are foreign-born.

At stake now is the reputation of the university, set in what faculty call a "social island" in the Scotch-Irish enclave, and in some ways, of Virginia itself.

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"Before I came here, I thought this was the safest town in the US," says Turkish graduate student Mehmet Dasiyici, wearing a maroon VT hat.

The rampage on Monday, in which South Korean-born Cho Seung-Hui shot 32 people on campus and then killed himself, has changed all that,

University doubles its size

With its neat granite downtown connected to a sprawling campus encircling a military drill field, the university has become a formidable force in the last 30 years, more than doubling its size and bolstering its reputation, especially in architecture and engineering. Its engineering school is ranked 18th in the nation among public universities, and its human-computer interaction lab is considered one of the world's best.

Despite Virginia Tech's dramatic shift in mission and culture, its hometown of Blacksburg retains a traditional Southern character. But there are problems with violence in this community of 40,000. Last year, a police officer and a security guard were killed by an escaped convict, who was captured a day and a half later. And the university has instituted a "Hokie Respect" campaign to defuse reports of hooliganism at football games.

Fueled by the growth of northern Virginia, Virginia Tech today has a relatively easy time recruiting foreign-born students. For example, some 40 percent of northern Virginia's population lives in Fairfax County, and a quarter of Fairfax County is made up of recent immigrants. The children of those immigrants, often born abroad but raised in the US, are now flowing into state schools such as Virginia Tech. One draw is the low in-state tuition – $5,450. Another is the school's curriculum, which emphasizes career skills – good conduits for assimilation into the American mainstream.

Today, the Corps of Cadets, the once-mandatory military drill team, still dominates campus events and ties the university to the past. A cadet was one of Mr. Cho's victims on Monday. But the student body has gone from being overwhelmingly white 20 years ago to 70 percent white today, with Asians becoming a driving force behind its academic achievements.

After the shooting, frantic calls came in from Seoul to Istanbul. "This became an international incident, not a Blacksburg incident," says Mr. Dasiyici.

"What makes this university unusual is that it's a social island far from the urban atmosphere of most major colleges," says Roger Ehrich, a 30-year computer science professor at Virginia Tech.

And while some in town grumble about the gown, the economic and cultural impact of the growth of Virginia Tech has been part of a gradual transformation of southwest Virginia from a coal-and-corn region to a viable part of a state that last year exported, in value, more computer chips than tobacco.

"Campuses and the state have changed to become much more diverse, and these students on the whole are completely comfortable with that," says Herman Schwartz.

Foreign students get Americanized

Many foreign students become thoroughly Americanized, even taking on the "God-and-guns" culture of the South. Student Wayne Chiang, a self-described gun nut whom some bloggers mistakenly fingered as the killer after discovering his site, professed his American right to bear arms to the Roanoke Times one day after the shooting.

But after the killings, one student, Noelle Anastasi, said her Portuguese roommate went too far in railing against America's gun culture, especially as its effects were complicated in this case by the nationality of the shooter. "Massacres can happen and do happen in every culture," says Ms. Anastasi, a forestry student.

On campus this week, as the names of the victims became known, the range of ethnic surnames described a cross-section of a diverse campus, brought, if anything, together by the tragedy. Overflow crowds attended Tuesday's convocation – visited by President Bush – and even more came to a candlelight vigil.

Motive still eludes investigators, and the self-questioning on the part of the university – and the state – has begun.

"Maybe we could have done better, and maybe we could have changed things; maybe we couldn't. We don't know that," says Mr. Ehrich.

"I think it bothers people here that this reputation will dog us for some time. This is not what we want to be known for," he adds.

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