Friday, March 1, 2024

MSU Memorial Tree honors shooting victims, students who died during academic year

February 11, 2024
Two students glance over at the 2022-2023 student memorial tree at Berkey Hall as they pass by on Jan. 29, 2024.
Two students glance over at the 2022-2023 student memorial tree at Berkey Hall as they pass by on Jan. 29, 2024. —
Photo by Matthew Williams | The State News

A year after the Feb. 13 shooting, only one permanent memorial honoring the students who were killed graces Michigan State University’s campus – the 2022-23 Student Memorial Tree. 

Every year since 2013, a memorial tree has been planted on campus to honor the students who passed away during the academic year, from July 1 through June 30. MSU plants the trees, along with a plaque featuring the students' names and the phrase, "Always a Spartan." Each of the families or guardians also receive a sapling from the particular tree planted in their student's honor. 

"I feel it's a very special program, and I hope that people stop and reflect when they go by (the trees) because they represent part of the MSU community and they are Spartans who will be Spartans forever," Assistant Vice President for Student Involvement and Leadership Dr. Allyn Shaw said.

Last year’s tree is dedicated to 23 spartans, including the shooting victims Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser and Alexandria Verner. It is located on the west side of Berkey Hall, the building where two students lost their lives. While the memorial honors other students who passed away from various causes, Shaw said, the violence that impacted campus last year has given the tree a unique significance. 

"There is more love with that one, because we use the mulch from all the flowers and plants that people had put out in the different locations," Shaw said. "So with the mulch there may be something a little more special, but the loss of any student life is important."

Shaw explained that all 23 students who passed away during the academic year are honored together because each student's life lost is equally deserving of being memorialized on campus. While more people may visit last year's memorial tree, Shaw said, the significance remains the same because "every family who has lost a student feels the pain and grief."

However, for students like data science sophomore Clara Linjewile, a "consolidated" memorial tree fails to properly honor both students who were killed in the shooting and those who died from other circumstances during the academic year.

"I feel like it’s just MSU’s way of giving them a memorial with minimal effort, especially grouping them with other people who passed away last year in general," Linjewile said. "I kind of feel like those are two separate entities, and should be handled differently."

Linjewile believes the university should work with the families of the students who passed away to "truly honor their lives in a way that is (the) best fit." The memorial tree is not enough, she said, and the shooting victims should receive a separate memorial located in a more central part of campus. 

"Given the context of how they passed away, I feel like their lives should just be honored in a more significant way," Linjewile said. 

Humanities pre-law sophomore Jenna Rabin has never noticed the memorial tree, despite having two classes in Berkey Hall this semester. Rabin said the students lost on Feb. 13th deserve a more prominent and intentional memorial. 

"(The tree is) a nice gesture, not only to the students who passed but to every student that witnessed that event," Rabin said. "But I don’t think it's enough."

According to Shaw, the university has established a committee tasked with planning a permanent memorial for the victims of the shooting, using money from the Spartan Together fund. Associated Students of Michigan State University, or ASMSU, also plans to dedicate a bench to the three students. As of Feb. 2024, however, the tree is the only completed memorial that honors Anderson, Fraser and Verner.

Rabin said renaming Berkey Hall to "Berkey Memorial Hall" would be one appropriate way to honor the students. However, she said she believes anything the university does now, a year after the shooting, is "too late."  

"I don’t think anything is going to be enough because it’s too late and the university failed them at that," Rabin said. "They were failed in general, if not by the university."

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