Current Students Share How 9/11 Has Influenced Their Lives
As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks approaches, most college-aged students have little to no firsthand memory of Sept. 11, 2001, as they were either very young or not yet born.
However, many University of Virginia students still recognize the lasting impact of the attacks on a personal and national level. From the classroom to their neighborhoods to their future jobs, 9/11 had transformed almost every sphere of the America they grew up in.
We spoke with five of them about their impressions of 9/11 and its lasting influences.
Jenna Kaufman, a 2021 UVA graduate, grew up outside of the District of Columbia and has felt the implications of 9/11 on the federal government, particularly in the increased security that was a constant presence in the nation’s capital.
“You hear about being able to walk straight onto a plane or walk straight into a federal building, and that after 9/11, the world completely shifted, but that’s the only reality I’ve known,” she said. “I imagine you definitely feel that more in D.C. than you do elsewhere.”
Kaufman’s mother works for the Department of Transportation and her father works for the Department of Health and Human Services, which gives her some insight into the safety precautions of a post-9/11 world.
“When I visit my parents at work, I need to go through security, and I could never use my mom’s parking spot in a federal building,” Kaufman said. “They also have all sorts of protocols, drills and training. I remember in the years following 9/11, I went to a federal daycare, and we would have evacuation drills where we’d go to these bunkers in case something similar ever happened again.”
Security might have abated a bit in some places, she said. Two years ago, Kaufman interned in the U.S. Capitol building for U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton of Virginia. Accustomed to her parents’ workplace, she was astonished at the lack of precautions in place.
“I was really surprised because you have to go through security upon entering the building, but it seems like there should be more, and for staffers and interns, you just put your backpack through the scanner and go through the metal detector,” Kaufman said. “But I think since Jan. 6 [the date if the Capitol insurrection], there’s been increased protection.”
Syed Ahmad: Islamophobia in Post-9/11 America
Syed Ahmad serves as the brother’s coordinator, planning events and bonding exercises for the Muslim Student Association at UVA and is a rising third-year majoring in computer science on a pre-med track.
“I was the only Muslim and only brown person in my high school, which a lot of people face, and because of that, there’s an ignorance toward Muslims,” said Ahmad, reflecting on his experience growing up in a post-9/11 America.
Throughout his childhood and adolescence in Lynchburg, Ahmad heard a host of discriminatory comments in connection to his religion.
“I don’t think I’ve ever spent a year without getting an Islamophobic remark in September, and that probably started around fifth grade,” he said. “Even high school teachers would say Islamophobic remarks or call you a terrorist. These are things Muslims usually see in their day-to-day life now.”
Ahmad cited 9/11 as a catalyst for the discrimination he and other Muslims face.
“I can almost guarantee – and I’m not going to generalize every single person’s individual experience – but I can almost guarantee 90% or more of Muslim people have faced some sort of discriminatory remark,” he said.
In the early 2000s, Ahmad’s family felt the direct impact of that backlash when his father was looking for employment.
“There is this statistic that after 9/11, the hiring rate of Arabs and Muslims decreased significantly, by somewhere around 60%. You could see that they were selectively choosing people who weren’t Arabs or Muslims, and so it made it difficult for my dad to find a job,” Ahmad said.
Since coming to UVA, Ahmad has found a community in the Muslim Student Association that is critical to his college experience.
“MSA has people with different ideas, different backgrounds, and it’s honestly great,” he said. “I was able to actually find my roommates, and we’ve been best friends since the first month of school.”
The organization plans activities to raise awareness and share information about Islam, hoping to counter disinformation and discrimination.
“MSA holds informational gatherings, or they set up an ‘ask me’ table outside of Newcomb Dining Hall where students can ask questions about Islam,” Ahmad said. “It’s important to understand that Islam is not a terrorist religion and not everyone that’s Muslim is an extremist.”
Matt Gillam: Sharing the 9/11 Memorial & Museum
May graduate Matt Gillam is the former Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy undergraduate president and in 2018 interned at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center site, where he worked in communications.
“The folks that are in our age bracket don’t remember Sept. 11, and I think the power of sharing history comes from the ability to tell narratives, so a lot of the exhibits in the 9/11 museum are really personal,” Gillam said.
“For example, there was an employee in the World Trade Center that would rollerblade to work every day, and their rollerblades were found in the wreckage and identified, and a plaque with that story is in the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.”
Individual stories humanize Sept. 11 for Americans who have no personal connection to the event or the day, he said. “When you walk through the museum, it tells not just the story of 9/11, but the story of the individuals, and I think that’s how we can connect folks to history, especially somebody who is not a New Yorker.”
At the end of his internship, Gillam presented a guide to enhance the workplace environment for 9/11 Memorial & Museum staffers.
“My final project was about company culture, and I drafted a book about the values of the museum, which focused on to the fact that everyday employees have to engage with death on such a large scale, and there were very few resources to unpack that,” he said. “I talked about how there should be free psychological services for staff members, more significant paid vacation time, and other things like that.”
In the Batten School, Gillam has also analyzed and learned the effects of 9/11 on federal and state laws and organization.
“[The Department of] Homeland Security was founded after 9/11, and our orientation federally to national security policy fundamentally changed,” Gillam said. “It’s a totally different ballgame in a policy sense. It’s become a new academic field and a new practical field.”
In the past decade, technology designed to protect Americans from another terrorist attack has been the source of many policy conversations.
“So many of the debates we have right now about privacy issues and data privacy can be linked directly to 9/11,” Gillam said. “The Patriot Act was passed in the wake of 9/11 and essentially gave, at some level, unrestricted access to our personal data, and that can’t be disentangled from the issues with big tech,” such as Facebook or Twitter.
These are debates Gillam will carry with him as he goes to work for Teach for America in Washington, D.C., and, he hopes, as he pursues an eventual career in politics. He plans to have several conversations with his students about the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
“I think the beauty of teaching in D.C. is that you can ground events in physical places, which is especially important for elementary school students,” Gillam said. “Additionally, the 9/11 memorial itself has a huge education department with fascinating work, and so I’ll definitely engage with some of their resources and videos as well.”
Kalie Ward: 9/11 and ROTC
Kalie Ward is a rising fourth-year student studying biomedical engineering and a member of UVA’s U.S. Navy ROTC unit.
“I was interested in the military from a pretty young age, probably around eighth grade,” Ward said. “In middle school, I always just knew that I wanted to do something bigger and more important with my life, and I didn’t want a 9-to-5-like desk job or anything like that, and I settled on the military pretty quickly, much to my parents’ surprise.”
As a part of the ROTC, Ward learns from many military members who have been fighting in the war on terror.
“Every single person or officer that we meet that has been commissioned all have a ribbon that says they entered the military during a time of war, the war on terror,” she said. “When we have briefs, and we’re talking about different conflicts and especially the Marine side of Navy ROTC, the expectation to be deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq is still very much there, even though we’re pulling troops.”
With no direct memory of the Sept. 11 attacks, the conversations in Ward’s community fostered a sense of duty.
“I come from a slightly military town (Peachtree City, Georgia). I grew up with a lot of exposure to the military, but I think sometimes maybe not even enough to have pushed me to even come to that decision, if it hadn’t been for Sept. 11,” Ward said. “I think subconsciously, the post-9/11 culture did influence a lot of our decisions to join the military in ways that we didn’t even realize at the time.”
Jane Frankel: New Yorkers’ Resilience, Then and Now
Jane Frankel is a rising fourth-year student in the Batten School and a native New Yorker. Though she was only a year old when the attacks occurred, the legacy of 9/11 permeates her home city.
“I only really know life after 9/11, but it was definitely something that was a part of our vernacular and a topic of conversation with other kids growing up,” Frankel said. “Everyone in New York has a story about where they were that day. I could tell you where all my friends were and their families’ stories in relation to Sept. 11.”
As a child, Frankel remembers learning about 9/11 in the classroom and gaining a deeper understanding of the event.
“On Sept. 11, we would always have 11 minutes of silence, and then the teachers would take time to teach us about what happened, or we’d write letters to families and first responders,” Frankel said.
Every year on Sept. 11, Frankel notices a shift in the attitude of New York City.
“I think on the anniversary, there’s always a somberness and even more unity. I don’t know how to describe it, because it’s something that’s just in the atmosphere. It feels like people take time to reflect on what it means to be a New Yorker,” Frankel said.
The attacks brought a host of safety practices that Frankel finds reassuring.
“When I think about feeling safe, like when I’m going to a concert or something, and my anxiety spikes about what could go wrong, I’m always like, ‘Well, New York City has some of the best security since 9/11, and we have so many precautions in place,’” she said.
Reflecting on it, Frankel said the city’s resilience in the face of adversity – then and now – is inspiring.
“Personally, I didn’t always know how much pride I had in being a New Yorker until I left New York, but this city is so resilient and has endured so much,” she said. “I think the fact that we’re able to recognize 9/11 every year and say that we’re not going anywhere is really powerful.
“Now, after the pandemic, people keep saying that New York’s gone or New York’s done, but I just think New York’s so tough, and to me, New York can never really be defeated or brought down.”