A Community and World Forever Altered

roses and flowers scattered on ground around flagpole in front of Chambers

Davidson College lowered the flag to half-staff outside of Chambers Building on the day of the 9/11 attacks. The flagpole later became a memorial.

Davidson College students learned of the September 11, 2001, attacks from phone calls and television screens. They stopped, wherever they were, and watched in silence.

The attacks played out on live broadcasts from around the country. Students and faculty and staff gathered in the new Alvarez College Union, where plans for a grand opening of the new space transformed into a place to grieve and lean on each other. More than 50 Davidson students from the affected cities frantically reached out to far-away loved ones and friends. The college community wrapped them in comfort and support.

Davidson College today includes students, many in the classes of 2024 and 2025, who were not yet born but confront and absorb its consequences every day in the classroom, in their hallway debates, in their programs overseas and in their communities back home.

We asked members of the campus community to share their reflections on 9/11.

How did the campus community react to the events of 9/11?

That night we had a community gathering in what was then a brand new student center [Alvarez College Union]. On all 3 levels, you had people—students with their feet hanging through the railing, faculty, staff. Just packed. People just started to talk. All of a sudden, there was no distinction between student, faculty and staff. We had a shared vulnerability. People said the most amazing things.

It was an uplifting spirit of community.

That year, we [at Davidson] were a lot like the rest of the world. We shared a sense of physical and emotional vulnerability that we had not sensed before.

- Bobby Vagt '69, Davidson College President Emeritus

How did 9/11 change your research and teaching?

The 9/11 attacks and the ensuing war on terrorism completely redirected my academic research and my engagement with the policy world. Prior to 9/11, my work on state-building, peace operations, and informal governance in zones of state failure were not of great interest. That changed with the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Suddenly expertise in state-building and informal political orders were in high demand. International interest in Somalia also spiked, out of concern that Al Qaida would exploit “ungoverned spaces.”

That drew me into work on failed and fragile states I could not have foreseen, with the U.S. government, UN, World Bank, and others. Watching how difficult and perilous state-building and counterinsurgency have been in Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere has been a sobering experience, and one that has generated a lot of lessons learned to share with Davidson students in the classroom. 

-Ken Menkhaus, Professor of Political Science

How do you remember 9/11 now, and with your students?

Perhaps every generation has a “where were you when” moment story, a moment when you learned of a horrific tragedy striking our nation. Until September 11, it was for many “where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated?” For all of us of an age to remember, it is “where were you when your heard about the Twin Towers attack?”

As with dramatic events, some things you remember vividly, and some things are a blur. I will always remember one thing: I got up to speak impromptu at the gathering of the campus community that night at the new Alvarez College Union. I didn’t remember my words until I looked up the Davidsonian article [published Sept. 12, 2001]: “This building will not be formally dedicated this week. But tonight, we come together and dedicate this union to peace.”

Each year, on the anniversary of the attacks, I ask my students how old they were on that fateful September 11. Over the years, I’ve heard stories of knowing someone inside, or that a parent worked nearby. Then it became stories of how parents frantically rushed to pick them [the students] up from school. As I asked today, some weren’t born, and others were only one or two years old. Recalling, remembering, and retelling is what we must and will do.

-Susan Roberts, Professor of Political Science

stack of water bottle packs for 9/11 collection drive in Davidson College union

After the initial shock of the attacks, the college community embraced action, organizing blood drives, and collecting donations for first responders.

students with heads bowed down in prayer on Chambers lawn

In remembrance of the lives lost from the attacks, students have gathered subsequent years on September 11 for a moment of silence and prayer.

How do you remember the day of 9/11?

I was a freshman. I had been at Davidson for three weeks for football camp, but it was the first week of classes. My mother taught high school math at a school near the base of the World Trade Center and felt when the first plane hit. My father is a New York City firefighter but was on Air National Guard training in Georgia. And this was my introduction to Davidson. This was the first communal event in the new Alvarez College Union.

We all started to question a lot. While we were all trying to cope, we were trying to ask, ‘What does this mean? How did we get here? How do we heal from this?’ I’ve seen Davidson continue that process of introspection and looking at things that need to change. One thing that hasn’t changed, Davidson was a very challenging time for me academically, socially. And It was a great thing that I was here in this community on that day. The community wrapped their arms around me in a way that only family does.

-Braxton Winston, Alum, Class of 2007

Where were you on 9/11?

I was at St. John’s University in New York on 9/11. It was one of the most beautiful days. I heard about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers while getting ready for work. As I was leaving, the second plane hit. It was clear that they were no accidents.

At St. John’s, few seemed to know. Nearly every colleague I told cried. From a few places on campus, you could see the Towers burning. Word spread. I saw the North Tower burning from the football stands. I didn’t know the South Tower had collapsed.

10,000 students wanted information. Many were crying because family members worked in the Twin Towers, on airliners, or in the fire department.

I knew so many people—I was certain to know people who were killed. I did. Friends, teammates, classmates, students—and knew many people who lost a parent, spouse, child, or sibling. Last calls from the Towers and planes were testaments of love. Funerals went on past Christmas. They kept finding remains digging through the wreckage. 

There was heroism on 9/11, and love and compassion in the time that followed. But that day itself is too terrible to dwell on much.

-Scott Salvato, Associate Chaplain


What does 9/11 mean for students who were too young to remember?

Last year I wrote an op-ed for The Davidsonian reflecting on how my upbringing in northern New Jersey was shaped by 9/11, a day I was too young to remember. I received a polarized response. Mostly I felt an outpouring of support among people who were directly affected by that day, in the Davidson community and back home. I also received comments questioning the importance of 9/11, equating U.S. government actions with the loss of 3,000 American lives. “Never forget’ does not hold the same weight for my non-Tri-State peers as it does for me.”

Unfortunately, I doubt much has changed in the past year. I can hope for a better, more unified world, but our national discourse following January 6 [2021] displays a much larger disconnect than I imagined a year ago, when I wrote, “We cannot forget or look past the events of 9/11, no matter what our exposure to it is, because something in every one of us was lost on that day, and we are still working to get it back.”

-Tommy Cromie, Student, Class of 2022

A 9/11 remembrance service for the campus community will take place Saturday, Sept. 11, at 11:30 a.m. on the North Lawn. Chaplain Scott Salvato will speak, and a timeline of the events of Sept. 11 will be recounted before a moment of silence and the close of the service.