When the twin towers and part of the Pentagon crumbled to pieces, three college seniors who call New York or Washington home wanted desperately to help with the recovery. But tucked away in the North Carolina woods at Elon University, they weren't able to do anything immediately.
Instead, the roommates persuaded their school to sponsor them on a month-long road trip, studying the effects of the terrorist attacks in cities across the United States.
"We all knew people who worked at or near the Pentagon or the World Trade Center," says Mary Taylor, a broadcast communications major. "We wanted to talk with others across the country to see what they were thinking and feeling."
During their Christmas break and a three-week semester in January, they journeyed from New York to San Francisco and back, gathering information for academic projects.
Ms. Taylor interviewed about 180 people for a documentary film. Cheryl Burckle, a business major, surveyed charitable agencies to assess the impact that the 9-11 relief fund drives have had on local organizations. And Abby Neville, a psychology major, administered a post-traumatic stress disorder survey to 200 volunteers.
The trio visited 16 cities, stopping in each one for a night or two and spending 10 to 12 hours a day meeting and talking with people on downtown streets, in malls, and at local attractions. "Some people were really emotional, and others just didn't seem to care," Ms. Burckle says.
Taylor says one of the interviews she remembers best was with an 18-year-old soldier in Kansas City, who recovered body parts at the Pentagon. "He was really distressed. I couldn't believe someone so young had to go through that."
Oklahoma City turned out to be another emotional stop. They wrote their thoughts on a remembrance wall at the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing. "We couldn't bring ourselves to interview anyone there," Taylor says.
But they were also surprised how friendly people were to them. In Utah, National Guard members told them what it was like to be in Afghanistan. In D.C., firefighters attending a convention were eager to share their thoughts.
"People seem to have a greater realization of how short life is," Taylor says. "Everyone had a story, whether it took them 20 seconds or 20 minutes to tell it."
Taylor is in the process of distilling her 18 hours of tape into an hour-long film that she'll show on campus in April. The experience has really improved her skills in filmmaking, a career she wants to pursue.
Burckle, meanwhile, is busy writing a business research paper from her nationwide interviews with Red Cross and United Way officials. They told her they have had significantly fewer donations and volunteers, as people directed attention to national efforts.
The young women say they were surprised by the level of support they got from Elon. Associate Provost Nancy Midgette spoke with several academic departments about the project, and ponied up $2,900 to cover gas and lodging. One of Burckle's business professors - who is, conveniently, the owner of a local automobile dealership - loaned the students a minivan. And a day before they were about to leave, Taylor found a friend who could loan her a video camera.
"It was an amazing experience, and we did it ourselves," Taylor says.