My graduation ceremony is right around the corner. Saturday, to be exact. And while I’m overflowing with excitement about this weekend, I can’t shake the uneasiness that lingers from the last week I spent at The University of Alabama.
Seeing a town, especially one that you hold so dearly to your heart, in shambles will never be an experience that you’d fully understand if you’re on the outside looking in. Simply clicking through photo galleries of the utter destruction will never come equal to trying to keep your hands from trembling as you peer at devastated homes through your camera lens. And repeatedly watching videos of natural disasters will never instill in you the same sense of fear that the thousands of victims endure.
To be honest, I never thought I’d have to experience a day like April 27, 2011. I never thought I’d see a mile-wide tornado or completely leveled neighborhoods with my own eyes. I was always the one who was on the outside looking in when it came to disasters like this, but this time I was caught right in the middle of it all.
The college town that was my home for four years was in ruins, with some neighborhoods unrecognizable even to individuals who have lived there for decades. While most families managed to survive the storm with little to no injuries or losses, countless people lost everything. Forty-three lives were claimed in Tuscaloosa alone, including nine students from area colleges and universities. I was one of the lucky ones, so I did everything I could to help, from making clothing and food donations to manning the registration table at the Red Cross shelter and volunteering at a local Catholic church. Seeing the overwhelming support from communities around the country was unbelievable, and it helped us to stay positive about the clean-up and rebuilding efforts.
But in the midst of all this, The University of Alabama called for an abrupt end to the spring semester, which included the postponement of our undergraduate commencement ceremonies until August. I kissed goodbye (and not happily, mind you) to the long-awaited farewells, walk across the Coliseum stage and usual pomp and circumstance. As I drove across the Alabama state line on my return to Illinois, I broke down. I never would have guessed that my undergraduate experience would end this way, tornado and all. It was heartbreaking.
Now with three months under our belt, Tuscaloosa is slowly making its way back to normalcy and graduation is upon us again. I’m incredibly excited to venture back into the heart of the state, where the Southern accents are thick, the sweet tea is irresistible and “Roll Tide, Roll” is naturally inserted into every chorus of “Sweet Home Alabama.” This weekend, my friends and I will officially close this chapter of our lives and take a closer look at our what’s to come. The future looks bright for all of us, and likewise, for Tuscaloosa.
After all, once you’ve faced the worst, you can be sure that you’ll brave any storm.
Round my hometown, memories are fresh.
Round my hometown, oh, the people I’ve met…
Are the wonders of my world.
-Adele, “Hometown Glory”