Generation 9-11

Sleepy, gray afternoon--a challenge to any professor. And for the first few minutes of class last week, University of Michigan sociologist David Schoem had some trouble rousing the 18 freshmen in his seminar on "Democracy and Diversity." One student slurped yogurt while another stretched his arms wide and yawned. A few others casually took notes. But the lassitude ended abruptly when Schoem switched the discussion to America's war on terrorism. For the rest of the hour, the students argued passionately and articulately about foreign policy, racism and media coverage. Then, New Yorker Georgina Levitt offered one view that stopped the debate cold. "September 11 has changed us more than we realize," she said. "This just isn't going to go away."

At Michigan and campuses all around the country, the generation that once had it all--peace, prosperity, even the dot-com dream of retiring at 30--faces its defining moment. College students are supposed to be finding their place in the world, not just a profession but also an intellectual framework for learning and understanding the rest of their lives. After the terrorist attacks, that goal seems more urgent and yet more elusive than ever. In the first week, they prayed together, lit candles and mourned. Now they're packing teach-ins and classes on international relations, the Mideast, Islamic studies, even Arabic. Where they once dreamed of earning huge bonuses on Wall Street, they're now thinking of working for the government, maybe joining the FBI or the CIA. They're energized, anxious, eager for any information that will help them understand--and still a little bit in shock.

It's too soon to tell whether 2001 will be more like 1941, when campuses and the country were united, or 1966, the beginning of a historic rift. So far, there have been only scattered signs of a nascent antiwar movement; at Michigan and other campuses, students' views are in sync with the rest of the country's. In the NEWSWEEK Poll conducted last week, 83 percent of young Americans said they approved of President George W. Bush's job performance and 85 percent favored the current military action. These figures are consistent across all age groups. But students also understand that the future is increasingly unpredictable and that long-held beliefs and assumptions will be severely tested in the next few years. "Our generation, as long as we've had an identity, was known as the generation that had it easy," says Greg Epstein, 24, a graduate student in Judaic studies at Michigan. "We had no crisis, no Vietnam, no Martin Luther King, no JFK. We've got it now. When we have kids and grandkids, we'll tell them that we lived through the roaring '90s, when all we cared about was the No. 1 movie or how many copies an album sold. This is where it changes."

What will they make of their moment? It's always tricky to generalize about a generation, but before September 11, American college students were remarkably insular. Careers were their major concern both during the high-tech boom (how to cash in) and after (how to get a job). According to the annual survey of college freshmen conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, only 28.1 percent of last year's freshman class reported following politics, compared with a high of 60.3 percent in 1966. Nationwide, campus activism has been low key through the 1990s. That was true even at Michigan, the birthplace of SDS and a hotbed of antiwar protest during Vietnam. Alan Haber, a 65-year-old peace protester and fixture on the Ann Arbor campus since his own student days in the 1960s, says that before September 11, there was no central issue that ignited everyone, just a lot of what he describes as "little projects": protests against sweatshops or nuclear weapons. He thinks that may change as these campus activists begin questioning the U.S. military efforts. "This situation," he says, "bangs on the head and opens a heart."

Despite their perceived apathy and political inexperience, this generation may be uniquely qualified to understand the current battle. "I think they realize more than the adults that this is a clash of cultures," says University of Pennsylvania president Judith Rodin, "something we haven't seen in a thousand years." While their parents' high-school history lessons concentrated almost exclusively on Western Europe, they've learned about Chinese dynasties, African art, even Islam. They are more likely than their parents to have dated a person from another culture or race, and to have friends from many economic and ethnic backgrounds. Their campuses as well are demographically very different from those of a generation ago. "It's gone from a more elite institution to more of a microcosm of the population," says David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, a national association of colleges and universities.

Others argue that this spirit of tolerance can have a downside, particularly now. When author David Brooks, who wrote a widely discussed Atlantic Monthly article on rampant pre-professionalism at Princeton last year, returned there after September 11, he found a surging interest in global affairs and issues of right and wrong--but also a frustration with the moral relativism of much of the curriculum (see this week's Web Exclusive at NEWSWEEK.MSNBC.com). One student told him that he had been taught how to deconstruct and dissect, but never to construct and decide.

Michigan, one of the country's premier universities with more than 38,000 graduate and undergraduate students, has spawned campus groups reflecting virtually every corner of the globe and every world view, from the conservative Young Americans for Freedom to groups that still cling to dreams of a socialist utopia. There are also substantial numbers of Jewish, Arab and Muslim students who have made the politics of the Mideast a personal cause. But on the morning of September 11, senior Geoff Gagnon, editor of The Michigan Daily, the campus newspaper, thought an issue much closer to home would be sparking angry debate that day. An athlete had been accused of sexual assault--a major story on a Big Ten campus--and Gagnon had been at the paper until well past 3 in the morning nailing down details. He was still groggy when his roommate burst in to tell him that NPR was reporting a "big plane crash in New York." Gagnon rushed from his apartment to the Daily newsroom, where he and his staff gathered around the TV. Soon, classes were canceled for the first time since the 1975 blizzard. "We just watched this thing unfold like everyone else," he says, "except we had to figure out what it meant for the 40,000 people here."

Virtually everyone Gagnon spoke to knew someone who might be missing. One of the news editors worried about her mother and stepfather, who worked near the World Trade Center. A reporter who grew up near Pittsburgh was alarmed when she heard about the crash of Flight 93 in rural Pennsylvania. After the first plane hit, they heard an active Michigan alumnus, Jim Gartenberg, interviewed on ABC. Trapped on the 86th floor of the North Tower, he was on the air live, describing the scene just before he was killed in the collapse. Gagnon quickly sent four reporters and two photographers to New York. "We wanted things we weren't going to get from the AP," he says. One of the reporters, David Enders, talked to Gartenberg's pregnant widow, Jill. She said that on Saturday three weeks earlier, her husband woke up exhilarated because it was the start of the college-football season. "He lived for Michigan football," she told Enders.

That first night, nearly 15,000 students gathered for an impromptu candlelight vigil on the Diag, the main campus crossroads. Some in the huge crowd had spent much of the day anxious for news of relatives or friends. Charlotte Greenough, an 18-year-old freshman from Manhattan whose family lives a few blocks from the World Trade Center, had waited five hours to hear that her parents were safe. She was so frustrated by the constant busy signals that she threw a cordless phone across the room and broke it. "I've never been so scared in my life," she says. Greenough, a committed pacifist, chose Michigan because of its diversity. "You can learn about other people, take any sort of class or go to any religious service or any concert," she says. "I knew that whatever direction I decided to go in, whatever happened, I would be able to follow that up and define myself." When classes resumed on Sept. 12, Greenough was impressed by how students on the huge campus reached out to each other. "People came up to me constantly," she says, "gave me hugs and were so nice to me."

In the first few days after the attacks, everyone seemed to be looking for ways to give and receive comfort. The bell tower played the national anthem. The Rock, a boulder along fraternity row that's often painted in school colors or bright neon hues, was adorned for weeks with American flags and "God Bless America." On Wednesday, junior Joanna Tropp-Bluestone's experimental-art instructor handed his class two huge wooden boards and asked the students to create a mural. Tropp-Bluestone, whose father died of heart disease when she was 10, knew exactly what she wanted to paint in her corner: a hollow red heart. "The only way you get through something like that is with love," she says.

Michigan's president, Lee Bollinger, had been in New York for a meeting on Sept. 11 and managed to get one of the last cars available from Hertz on 57th Street for the 10-hour drive home on Wednesday. As he drove, he was on his cell phone with the football coach, Lloyd Carr, debating whether Saturday's game against Western Michigan University should go on. Carr argued for the game, but Bollinger wasn't convinced. As he sped across New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, he called colleagues for advice, including Peter McPherson, president of the university's archrival, Michigan State. Finally, as he neared Ann Arbor, Bollinger made his decision. The cavernous Michigan Stadium would be silent on Sept. 15. "It became clear to all of us," Bollinger says, "that the magnitude of this was so great that a few days would not separate ordinary life from this event. People would need to regain ordinary life over a longer period of time."

Over the next week, walk-in traffic doubled at the campus psychological-counseling center. Everyone was feeling vulnerable, says Jim Etzkorn, the clinical director. Many students were worried about being drafted if war erupted. There were also more intense cases of homesickness, especially among freshmen. On Sept. 19, 800 people jammed a panel discussion of the attacks by historians and political scientists who specialize in the Mideast. Even the most uninvolved students understood that they could no longer ignore what was happening on the other side of the world. The Daily was running foreign news on its front page almost every day, and many professors, encouraged by the administration, incorporated discussions of the events into classes on a wide range of subjects.

For Michigan's Arab and Muslim students, the weeks after the attack brought unexpected terror. On September 11, Areej El-Jawahri, an 18-year-old freshman whose family moved here from Iraq four years ago, was still trying to check on friends in New York when she started receiving threatening e-mail. One said: "We will f--- you bastards for doing this." Later that week, when El-Jawahri mentioned the e-mails in her political-science class, two non-Muslim girls she didn't know well came up and hugged her, and they've since become good friends. "I love this country," she says. "I love the freedom." She supports the bombing of Afghanistan and says that the United States is "defending the Islamic religion from the disgrace of bin Laden." Brenda Abdelall, 20, a political-science and Islamic-studies major from Ann Arbor who is president of the Arab Students Association, said she received a death threat within two hours of the attack. Abdelall, pictured on NEWSWEEK's cover, was afraid to leave her apartment, and her mother came and got her. Abdelall called the police soon afterward, but the e-mail couldn't be traced. "Walking around, I did feel people were looking at me," she says. She and a friend put together a campus wide teach-in on hate crimes that was attended by 500 people. "Only through education and knowledge can we defeat intolerance on campus," she says.

When he heard about the attacks, Aiman Fouad Mackie, a 21-year-old graduate student in public policy, had just one thought: "Please God, don't let it be Arabs." Since then, he says, many of his Arab friends have received death threats. Mackie is president of Michigan's Lebanese Student Association and he says many members do not show up for meetings now because they're afraid to walk around at night. But, he says, there have been encouraging changes as well. Instead of shouting at each other, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups are speaking in a more civilized way. Mackie always wanted to work for the government, but now he is even more sure that he'd like to represent the United States overseas, maybe in the Mideast. "The most positive thing coming out of this," he says, "is that Americans will have a better understanding of Islam and Arabs."

Foreign students at Michigan and elsewhere have also felt the pressure of extra scrutiny. The university has 4,000 foreign students, the majority in graduate school. So far, officials say, only one is known to have withdrawn because of concerns about safety. However, proposals to tighten immigration and student-visa standards could affect Michigan in the future.

Many students say that something resembling normal life started returning to campus on Sept. 22, when the Wolverines finally met Western Michigan for the postponed match up. In a somber, patriotic tribute, the band formed an American eagle on the field while they played "America the Beautiful." They unfurled a giant flag on the 50-yard line. As she stood saluting, drum major Karen England was stunned by the crowd's reaction. Normally, Michigan football fans clog the aisles at halftime, racing for the concession stands and the restrooms. Instead, the crowd stood as one and sang. After they exited the field to a simple military drum tap, England had to comfort her sobbing bandmates. "I don't think anybody in the band realized the effect this would have," she says. "We were performing for something really important, our country. That week, we had a purpose." (Michigan won, 38-21.)

Over the next few weeks, the flags that had sprung up over campus began to come down, but the wave of patriotism that swept the campus remains strong. No one felt the change more than the university's Navy ROTC students. Their captain, Dennis Hopkins, was a student at Michigan in the mid-1970s, when ROTC students "got rocks and bottles thrown at you," he says. But his students say that their non-ROTC classmates now view them with a mix of awe and curiosity. Jessica Ryu, a 21-year-old battalion commander from North Carolina, recalls a physical-fitness run across a bridge on campus with 23 other ROTC students--all wearing fatigues. "People stopped on the bridge and started clapping," she says. "Before, we were yelled at for being in the way." Ryu says it bothers her that "it took so many people to die to make others proud to be an American. I felt that from day one."

In late September, as Michigan was struggling with new realities, Bollinger was trying to figure out his own future. He was offered the presidency of Columbia University, and he and his wife, Jean, an artist and a Columbia graduate, spent long hours weighing the pros and cons of the new job. "It was extremely agonizing," he says. But September 11 actually helped tip the scales in favor of Columbia, where he'll take over next summer and where he hopes to do his part to help rebuild New York.

Two months after the attacks, many Michigan students say they're still trying to get back to "normal"--whatever that means now. At the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity last week, headless Barbies decorated the entrance. The smell of stale beer from a Halloween party lingered in the air. But as they sat under a poster of a voluptuous model, the frat boys seemed remarkably sober. Ben Weinbaum, a 19-year-old sophomore from San Diego, says many of his friends felt guilty going out and having fun. But he doesn't. "Life moves on," he says, "but moving on doesn't mean forgetting. We think about it every day." Joel Winston, a 20-year-old junior majoring in political science, says that although he'd been thinking about working for the government before September 11, he's now more sure than ever of his goal. He wants to help in a way he never imagined before. Even with a shaky economy, he says, "the government is always looking for bright people to do America's work."

Down the street, at the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, an Arab and a Jew talked about their very different attempts to pick up their lives. The Arab, Rema Mounayer, a 20-year-old junior, was still feeling hurt after another sorority sister told her that her mother had directed her not to sit next to any Arabs on planes. She cried for days. "The fact that it happened in my own sorority killed me," she says. Lately, she's been thinking of moving out of the sorority even though everyone in her house seems to be on her side. "I can't live in a place where I feel ashamed of who I am," she says. Mounayer says she always understood that in a diverse community like Michigan, there would be people who didn't agree with her, but she never expected to feel like an outsider.

Another sorority sister, Lee Raskin, a 20-year-old from New York's Long Island, is still mourning for her mother's best friend, a lawyer at Cantor Fitzgerald. As she chokes back tears, she says she now calls home many times a day and phones her mother at work "just to check in." When she sees a plane flying low, she worries. At the same time, she's learned to appreciate the moment. "I want to do everything now and not put anything on hold," she says. High on her list: time with her family and a trip to Australia. There's still a whole world to explore.

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