University of Alabama Students Finally Graduate Amid Tornado Wreckage

The human spirit is, among other things, resilient. In the wake of tragic events, it is often common for people to find some spark of hope, some reason to celebrate and move on. This is certainly true of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the university housed there. It is true of the parents of six students killed by a monstrous tornado. And it is true of the surviving students, who in early August celebrated a graduation day they thought was swept away, along with everything else, three months before.

By Harrison Howe


'Walking for a City'

Scott Atterton. Danielle Downs. Ashley Harrison. Melanie Nicole Mixon. Morgan Sigler. Marcus Smith.

The names which under ordinary circumstances would have called the students forward to receive their hard-earned diplomas were instead read in a memorial tribute at the University of Alabama graduation ceremony in early August. Six students of the university killed when a historic tornado slammed into Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011. Six students whose parents, instead, stood up to receive the honors for their children.

A red rose was laid for each student lost in the storm. James Fowler, former president of the student government, called it a time to 'honor' and 'heal'. Many saw it as closure. As expected, a bittersweet mixture of sorrow and happiness blanketed the audience and graduates alike.

Among all else it had done - which was to destroy 12% of the city of Tuscaloosa and kill a total of 47 residents - the tornado in April blew away much of the tradition surrounding graduation, such as Senior Week, not to mention the ceremony itself. While the physical structure of the university remained largely intact, the ferocious winds took a high toll on the psyche of the students and staff of the top-ranked institution, which is Alabama's first public college.

Classes at the university ended. Many students simply returned home. Some of those who remained pitched in to help wherever it was needed. And the thoughts lingered that this wasn't the way it was supposed to be, this wasn't the way anyone imagined their college career coming to a close.

Some sense of normalcy was restored on August 6th, when two undergraduate ceremonies were conducted in the school's Coleman Coliseum. Nearly three months late, students were finally able to don their black gowns and march into their futures.

Graduate Candace Murphy, who earned a degree in journalism and who witnessed the tornado as it descended upon Tuscaloosa, told CNN: 'This will be a day I will never forget. I am walking not only for myself but for everyone in the tornado. I am walking for a city.'

Graduates everywhere, not just those affected by the devastation in Alabama, realize the tough times that lie ahead after they complete school; still, many of these young men and women remain optimistic about their futures.

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