A Student-Affairs Vice President Becomes Ambassador to the Stunned and the Grieving

April 18, 2007

Blacksburg, Va. — Zenobia L. Hikes, Virginia Tech’s vice president for student affairs, was driving to work early Monday morning when her cellphone rang. Minutes later she was in the president’s office with anxious administrators and campus police officers, who had just learned that two students had been shot in a dorm. Suddenly an officer’s voice came on the police radio and said that there was “live and active shooting” in nearby Norris Hall. Everyone jumped out of their seats.

On Wednesday morning, Ms. Hikes said it felt as though that moment had happened two weeks earlier. Since Monday’s deadly shootings, she said, she had gotten about five hours of sleep.

First she had to process the magnitude of the crime. “In the academy you have this peace, in a space of learning,” Ms. Hikes said. “Then suddenly you’re out of that mindset. ‘Horrific’ and ‘heinous’ don’t begin to capture what happened here.”

On Monday morning, she huddled around a table with the heads of the 15 departments that report to her, including counseling and student health. They established an on-campus place for families of the victims, created an around-the-clock call center, and developed a counseling plan that allows students to see the same counselor every time they need help.

Ms. Hikes spoke at Tuesday afternoon’s convocation ceremony and also at Tuesday evening’s candlelight vigil. There she told students, “If you see a roommate or friend having a difficult time, help them.”

On Wednesday morning, she agreed to sit for an interview that was to air on Oprah. For several minutes, she waited before a television camera, only to be told that the show had run out of time. Afterward, as she made her way through a hallway, several people stopped to hug her. “You’re doing a great job,” they told her.

It was only 11:30 when she entered a large hall where dozens of the victims’ family members were gathered in small groups, some crying. Ms. Hikes walked up to the first couple she saw and slowly gave them her hand. —Eric Hoover