Freshmen grappled with 9/11

Seth Freedland and Seth Freedland

As students trickled into Northwestern in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, that Fall Quarter’s uniqueness became obvious.

Yes, freshmen always struggle to adapt to a new home, and students often grapple with social decisions at a school year’s outset, but 9/11’s ensuing emotional maelstrom forced the campus to seek one thing through all the confusion and grief: normalcy.

But what would that new “normal” be, exactly?


Pundits worldwide declared that the terrorist attacks would affect the Class of 2001 — and its larger generation — in deep and profound ways. This would be one of those cataclysmic events, they proclaimed, which would live in infamy and define a generation.

Helen Wood, director of the Center for Student Involvement, agreed with that characterization and said those who work with students “have seen a drastic change” between the students entering college pre- and post-9/11.

Wood said she notices students keeping in touch with friends more often since 9/11. She noted that the Class of 2006 independently created an online community to communicate with each other before arriving in Evanston.

“Can you articulate that to 9/11?” she asked. “Yes. People want to be close to other people.”

Wood ticked off a laundry list of other examples. Freshman Formal for the classes before 9/11 saw 100 to 150 students, she said. This fall 450 people attended. NU Day at Wrigley Field brought 2,000 people together. The athletic fee produced “shockingly high numbers” at NU sporting events, she said. And student leaders created First Friday, when 3,000 students congregated for food and fireworks, after 9/11.

“Some of these are predictors of (the) generation based on generational studies, but at the extent that they’re happening so much and at the very beginning of (the) generation I would say you could easily extrapolate that to 9/11 and its aftermath,” Wood said.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis. Generational studies make Cate Whitcomb doubt 9/11 has made much of a difference in students’ lives. Whitcomb, assistant to the vice president for student affairs, said the generation is predisposed to community desires because of the way they were raised.

Anything seen as resulting from 9/11 is just part of a pre-existing constant trend, Whitcomb said.

Wood disagreed: “I think we’re seeing an interesting dynamic shift on the things people are requesting. They want big community events now where the entire campus community can participate. … So there’s something to be said for the 9/11 connection.”


For many students, attending Freshman Formal or a football game did not reduce the pain or personal turmoil following 9/11. The need to reach out to someone led more students than usual to Counseling and Psychological Services in the months following the terrorist attack.

During Fall Quarter 2001, 552 students made appointments with CAPS counselors, up from 429 students from the previous year, according to numbers released that January.