Seniors at Michigan State University have been through an unusual four years.
They’ve weathered a pandemic, a presidential resignation and all of the implications of a horrific tragedy on their campus.
That last point, in particular, will follow them for the rest of their lives. MSU seniors are entering the world as mass shooting survivors — a fact that many haven’t necessarily wrapped their heads around.
But many aren’t letting this define their college experience. The State News talked to four seniors who are graduating with pride, fond memories of their school and an increased appreciation for the friends and experiences they’ve made in East Lansing.
Dealing with a mass shooting
The senior class, along with the rest of the student body, recently faced a mass shooting on the campus they considered home.
Public relations senior Alexia Saucedo was on campus with sustainable parks, recreation and tourism senior Caroline Miota when the shooting started. They were in the middle of a VIM Magazine meeting in Bessey Hall when they got the MSU Alert.
Initially, they thought it wasn’t pressing because they’ve gotten similar warnings before. But when the second notification came in, they realized it was serious.
Saucedo, Miota and some friends made it off campus to her apartment. When they arrived, they listened to the police scanner to make sure people they knew on campus were safe.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Saucedo has been trying to cope. When she is on campus and hears sirens, she starts crying uncontrollably as a response.
“It's another type of empathy that you feel when you see like in the news that a new shooting happened,” Saucedo said. “Because you know exactly what those people are going through during the shooting and like the aftermath, the media aftermath too … Part of me feels empathy, but at the same time, I look at those notifications and part of me feels nothing. Like I don't, I feel indifferent to it. And I don't know why that is.”
Miota went home after the shooting because she needed some distance. She appreciated seeing the encouraging signs around campus when she returned and said her professors were kind about returning to classes.
Psychology senior Shannon Gielow was at a Panera on Grand River Avenue and had friends tell her to go home when the shooting started. She got home safely.
However, Gielow had friends who were on campus. She spent four hours texting and calling them to see if they needed help in any way. These were some tense hours, Gielow said. .
In the shooting aftermath, she said professors were accommodating initially. However, Gielow said aside from requiring scan-ins for buildings after 6 p.m., MSU can do more to make people feel safe on campus.
Before the shooting, computer science and French senior Dorian Smalley was adjusting to campus after being abroad in France the previous semester. Afterward, Smalley was thankful to not know anyone personally that was directly affected by the shooting.
“I think it was just kind of just a wake-up call to just really not take for granted things like your connections and the people that you really, really value — like your friends and family,” Smalley said. “Just to reach out and just be a little bit more understanding of what people are going through. Because stuff like this happens completely unexpectedly."
Going into the world as mass shooting survivors
Going into the world as mass shooting survivors, these seniors believe they will deal with what life hands them differently.
Saucedo said she wonders if it's going to happen to her again.
“Like what happens if one day I go to a bank, or I go to work, or I go to a zoo or any public place?” Saucedo said.
She said if she does ever find herself in that situation again, she knows what to do. She knows how to calm other people down, grieve with others and tell them that they’ll be OK. They will find a new normal.
Miota and Gielow said it’s hard and strange for them to think of themselves as shooting survivors.
“When I was home for Easter, my brother gave me a bulletproof (panel) for my backpack and he got one for my mom too for her purse,” Miota said. “And it was like, I don't really think about myself as a shooting survivor. But then you talk to outside people — even just my family – or anyone. You're like, ‘Oh I go to Michigan State’ and they’re kind of asking about it. So I don't think it like feels real yet.”
“It feels weird for me to say I was a survivor because I wasn't on campus at the time. So I feel a little bit more removed from this situation,” Gielow said. “But it is still something that happened right next to me and to my campus, and I feel like a few years ago, it would have felt weirder for this to happen, but since it's such a common occurrence now. … it feels like I'm just part of the majority at this point.”
Smalley said it took an extreme amount of strength to be able to overcome something like this and still be able to continue classes and everything else. It gives him strength and confidence to overcome other obstacles, he said.
Favorite memories at Michigan State
While these negative experiences played a role in defining their experience at MSU, these seniors also had positive memories to look back on.
Saucedo’s most memorable moment was the MSU vs. University of Michigan game her junior year when both teams were undefeated for seven games each. Michigan State slipped away with the win and kept its pristine record.
“The energy that was in that stadium, I don't think we'll ever be matched by anything ever again because everybody was just on edge,” Saucedo said. “And when we eventually ended up winning like it was such a euphoric feeling and like everybody was just so happy. It was just joy.”
A more recent favorite memory Saucedo has was when she was part of the VIM Magazine fashion show in March with Miota.
Two of Saucedo’s designs were a part of the show — the second one they’ve had since the COVID-19 pandemic. For her, it felt like a big accomplishment. Other members of the organization were nice and welcoming to her. Everyone was happy to be showing off their designs.
Miota said the most memorable part of her experience at MSU was the time spent with friends and when she was able to enjoy just being in college — the moments spent walking around and taking everything in.
Gielow's most memorable time at Michigan State was going to the football games and tailgating. She enjoyed seeing everyone around campus so lively in their MSU gear.
In particular, one of Gielow’s favorite games was the last home one this past football season. All of Gielow’s friends were able to go and they just had fun throwing snowballs around. Even if it was freezing, the amount of people that went to the game and tailgated was fun for her to see.
Smalley’s most memorable experience at MSU was when he studied abroad in France. For him, it was a big personal growth experience to leave the country for the first time and travel to an international location. He was able to advance his knowledge of the language and experience different cultures.
How they’ll stay connected to MSU
These seniors said they will always remember MSU and plan to continue staying involved long after graduation.
Miota plans on visiting her friends who aren’t graduating yet, helping out with scuba club as needed and coming back from time to time.
Gielow is sad to leave behind all the friends and professors she has made connections with. Her whole family is tied to campus, so she’ll visit for football games and stop by her favorite spots. She’ll also come back to see friends who aren’t graduating yet.
Smalley plans to stay connected to people who remain on campus and will leave his contact information with some of the associations he’s been involved with, such as the Honors College.
Smalley said that when it comes to college, the point is to feel lost and not in control at times because you’re reaching your full potential and growing.
“I think feeling lost at university at times means that you're actually doing the experience correctly,” Smalley said. “I think it just means that you're taking the time to actually capitalize on different opportunities and just discovering really who you truly are. And that's kind of what this process is really all about.”
Saucedo said MSU has been her home where she has made both professional and personal connections. She also wants to extend a hand to students who, like her, may have grown up as migrant farm workers.
“If these past four years at Michigan State have taught me anything, it is that no matter what gets thrown at me, I'm going to be able to get through it,” Saucedo said. “Whether that be with good experiences or super traumatic ones.”