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Unity in the Wake of Tragedy

by Mary D.

President Obama has recognized September 11 as a National Day of Service and Remembrance and called Americans to community service to honor the day. Through their service, New Yorkers not only remember the horrible tragedy of September 11, 2009, but also a recent tragedy at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, NY. On April 4, 2009, a gunman took the lives of thirteen innocent people and ultimately lost his own life. The victims were teachers of English and recent immigrants, who came to America with the hope of a better life.

The efforts of the local Binghamton area colleges and universities to aid to the American Civic Association are a demonstration of the President’s plea for a “remarkable spirit of unity and compassion.” Davis College, a faith-based institution in Binghamton, was engaged in service to the American Civic Association (ACA) at the time of the April shooting. Professor Bonnie Novak of Davis had five college students teaching English to immigrants at the ACA on Wednesdays. Throughout the semester, close bonds were formed as the Davis students shared stories and befriended the people at the Center. No Davis students were at the ACA the day of the shooting but they profoundly grieved the loss of lives and friends. At a memorial service at Davis a few days later, members of the college, local churches and the entire Binghamton community prayed for the victims and the families of those who had died.

The lives of Binghamton University (BU) faculty and students were also intertwined with the American Civic Association and the tragedy memorialized in a campus service on April 14th. In the aftermath of the tragedy, members of the campus community, such as the International Student and Scholar Services, the Counseling Center and Employee Assistance Program, worked with international students, friends and families of victims. Among those killed were two visiting BU professors. The university assisted with funeral and travel expenses for the families of the deceased. Many student groups also organized events and fundraisers to help. For example, a snack food delivery in a residence hall raised money for the children who had lost their parents that day. One group of students, the Binghamton Scholars, had a long connection with the American Civic Association through service-learning courses. Since 2007, the university students have read books to the ACA children and collected toys for an annual Christmas party. This same group of students has fund-raised for the organization and developed a series of financial workshops for the ACA immigrants. Because of these connections and the friendships developed over the course of two years, the Binghamton Scholars students experienced extreme sadness following the April 2009 shooting.

The students of Davis College and Binghamton Scholars students were profoundly touched by their involvement with the American Civic Association and the senseless tragedy. The students were enrolled in service-learning courses partially funded by a Learn & Serve America Higher Education program grant. On September 11th, we were challenged by President Obama to donate time to service in the communities where we live, work or attend school. Students at our colleges and universities learn about the “spirit of unity and compassion” by connecting with local community organizations throughout the year.

To strengthen these connections and involve students in meaningful service, higher education institutions and faculty need to increase opportunities for service-learning. At Binghamton University and Davis College, we are thankful for funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service to assist in these noble efforts. It is our hope with youth service and civic engagement that a future generation will have the knowledge and power to bridge cultural divides and promote peaceful resolutions to conflict.

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