"My thoughts before last week were: Where am I going to work? Where is my future?" said Nicholas Newell, a 21-year-old senior at USC. "Now I am thinking: Am I going to be in a foreign country dodging bullets?"
The events of Sept. 11 have introduced profound new worries at college campuses across the nation. Fears that the government might reinstate the draft are widespread, despite U.S. assurances that there is no immediate plan to do so.
Many students also voiced generalized fears about terrorism and the prospects of a war like Vietnam--a conflict most know only from their parents or history classes. In a nation gearing up for a war on terrorism, these fears among students prompted nationwide demonstrations for peace on Thursday. Only days into the fall semester, students staged a coordinated series of peace rallies, candlelight vigils and petition drives at more than 150 campuses, from Caltech and UCLA to Harvard University and MIT.
A statue of George Washington is adorned with American flags and peace symbols in Union Square Park Thursday night, Sept. 20, 2001 in New York. The park is widely visited by people wanting to light candles and remember the dead and missing from last Tuesday's terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
The events, evoking images of 1960s activism, were aimed in part at remembering the dead and perhaps in larger part at encouraging a restrained response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"For this to turn into an excuse to have a war and kill more people, it seemed like it would just be too horrible," said Sarah Norr, a junior at Wesleyan University and one of the demonstration organizers.
Whether or not they demonstrated, many students were worried.
One expressed uncertainty about attending a football game at the Rose Bowl--a place, when filled with 70,000 fans, that could be a tempting target for terrorists. Worries were even greater among students here on visas from the Middle East; some were preparing to return home rather than risk being stranded in the United States if war breaks out. As many as 30 dropped out of Cal State Long Beach.
"Personally, this is the biggest tragedy I've seen in my lifetime--[and that] anyone my age has seen in their lifetime," said Michael Duignan, a film major at UC Berkeley, where 12,000 students attended a memorial service on Monday. "Everything will be different forever."
Berkeley, a focal point of antiwar radicalism in the 1960s, was again the center of a storm this week when 100 protesters jammed the offices of the student-run newspaper to demand an apology for a cartoon perceived as belligerent toward Arab Americans.
2,000 Students Jam Sproul Plaza
The mood on Thursday, as nearly 2,000 students rallied in Sproul Plaza, had calmed, and clearly opinions were mixed. Antiwar signs--"An eye for an eye makes the world go blind"--competed for attention with American flags. Biology student Renee Floyd, distracted from her studies, said she'd been involved in vigorous discussions with her antiwar friends.
"I think war is kind of inevitable," she said. "If you don't take action, events like this can occur again."
Floyd conceded she has never experienced the hardships of war. "Everything has been so secure. Now I know America isn't completely impenetrable. We actually are vulnerable. I don't know what I should feel or what I should do. . . . I've been thinking about this nonstop. It's pretty hard to concentrate."
Antiwar sentiment was a pervasive theme in rallies that were sparsely attended at some campuses. "Nerds Against War," declared one of the student-made signs at MIT. "War Is Also Terrorism," proclaimed another sign at Harvard. About 350 students in Boston disrupted rush-hour traffic with a march from Copley Plaza to Harvard Square.
Some demonstrators acknowledged uncertainty about their antiwar message coming so soon after the attacks, and some restaurant diners observed with disapproval. "I think they're sick," said a man named Bud, a 66-year-old MIT graduate who declined to give his last name.
Yet the marchers kept up a chant: "One, two, three, four--we don't want another war! Five, six, seven, eight--stop the violence, stop the hate!"
At Occidental College in Eagle Rock, 94 people signed up for membership in Students United for Peace, a new campus club. It was sign-up day for all clubs, but organizer Robert Wallace was nonetheless pleased with the response.
"There's people out there who are working for war 24-7," the freshman said, "and we felt it was foolish for us not to put in the same effort."
At Cal State Northridge, students expressed conflicting feelings of fear, anger, confusion, patriotism and anti-patriotism. The day after the hijackings, military recruiters set up tables on campus, and they have been there ever since, students said.
"I get students who come in and say: 'I'm ready, dude. I'm ready for war,' " said professor Roberto Lovato, head of the Central American studies program. "I ask them: 'Can you find Pakistan on a map? Do you know the history of U.S. foreign policy? Have you been in a war?' "
Lovato, along with several other professors, organized a discussion Thursday about the tragedy and its effect on everyday life. Speakers focused on Afghanistan, Middle Eastern politics, civil liberties and the emotional fallout of the crisis.
"CNN is like a 24-hour Bruce Willis movie," he said. "In the media, in pulpits, on the streets, on this campus, I have never seen such a blatant disrespect for objectivity."
A similar discussion at USC on Wednesday drew some 300 students to a lecture hall, while Muslims took to the quad to distribute literature about Islam. Not far away stood a memorial for attack victims decorated with candles, stones and peace signs.
Young Men Fixated on Fear of Draft
Although experts have said a war against Afghanistan would probably involve a relatively small number of special forces units, rendering a draft unnecessary, the subject dominated the conversations of many young men.
Art studies major Rafael Matos, 23, said his stepfather was on the ground floor of the World Trade Center's north tower when the first hijacked plane struck; he survived. Matos, though, was in no hurry to avenge the attack by joining the armed services, and he did not want to be drafted. He would rather go to jail, he said.
"As a man of color in this society, I get treated as a second-class citizen no matter what," Matos said, while helping fraternity members collect donations for a New York City relief fund. "If I go fight in a war and come back, I'm still going to be treated like a second-class citizen."
USC's Dante Manalo, 21, the American-born son of immigrants, indicated he would serve, but with reluctance.
"My parents came to America for a better life," he said. "For me to die in a war would defeat the whole purpose."
Josh Zimmerle and his friends sat at a lunch table at Oxnard College, imagining the scenarios and scheming to stay out of the Army.
"I'll pretend I'm gay," Zimmerle said. "I'm against war. It's scary."
Gilbert Camarillo spoke up, saying his father returned from Vietnam "all crazied out."
Schisms formed everywhere. At Moorpark College, fitness instructor Bobby Prokenpek, 21, termed himself a "perfect candidate" for the draft and said: "It would be a big life change. It would scare the hell out of me. I don't know who exactly we're going to war with, but I would risk my life for my country."
Andrew Stevens, at the same school, disagreed: "There's a very good chance you might find me in Canada."
Dozens of students from Arab nations are dropping out of colleges and returning home, though the exact numbers are unknown. As of Thursday, USC reported only one, a Kuwaiti man, while Cal State Long Beach has lost 30, according to the director of that school's Center for International Education.
Arab Students Think Twice About Staying
Officials with several Middle East embassies in Washington said they have not--contrary to some reports--ordered students to leave the United States, but they are offering to help make arrangements for any who want to. Meanwhile, some feared their visas might be revoked, although State Department officials say there are no plans for that.
Many fleeing students were being ordered home by their parents, embassy officials said. Some students feared reprisals for the attacks.
"I understand people are looking for some way to show their anger," said a 24-year-old Muslim student at Santa Monica College who vows to stay. "But I came here to get an education."
But seven other Arab or Middle Eastern students have quit the school, one official said. A dozen more have entered counseling.
So far, there have been no significant reports of anti-Arab incidents on American campuses. However, one group of departing students was detained by FBI and immigration agents Tuesday night at an apartment in Irvine. Mohammed Saheed, 21, was to fly home to Yemen today with his brother, Abdullah, 20, and a cousin, Gassha Saheed, 18.
The three men, enrolled at colleges in Orange County, were seen packing up by a neighbor who imagined they might be terrorists and called police.
Ramzi Mekhail, an 18-year-old math student at UCLA, said he shaved his beard last week to look "less like an Arab." His parents are Jordanian, but Mekhail is an American. Despite the backlash against Arab Americans, he said he would still die for this country.
He was on his way to donate blood.
"I'm not one of them [terrorists]," he said. "I'm not [Osama] bin Laden. I'm not Saddam [Hussein]."
The attacks are already changing the course of studies at many campuses, professors said. Kassem Nabulsi, who teaches history at USC and Pierce College, said his classes usually center on recent historical events, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Now he engages in live analyses of the unfolding story.
"First of all, this will give students better perspective and incentive to understand the presidency and the larger context in which it exists," Nabulsi said. "And now the students are much more interested in the Middle East and Islam."
Times staff writers David Ferrell, Martha Groves, Erika Hayasaki, Hilary Mac Gregor, Scott Martelle, Zanto Peabody, Eric Slater, Matt Surman, Margaret Talev and Holly J. Wolcott contributed to this report.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times