Having just graduated last month, it feels strange now to consider The University of Texas at Austin my alma mater. It has felt like my home for so long, much longer than the four years I spent on campus as a student. It has felt like my home partly because it is rooted in the central hub of my beautiful hometown of Austin. It has felt like my home since 2001, when my dad began working in administration at the UT Tower (or the Main Building). It was my home when my mom attended UT in the early 2000s, and my dad and I would drive to campus in the evenings to pick her up from the library. It was my home when I was offered admission to the university in February of 2013, just short of a decade after my mom graduated in the class of 2003.
In so many instances, childhood memories are like stories within stories; your hippocampus is too soft, and you recall matters through someone else’s memory. There is a circular driveway on campus, between the academic center where my mom used to study and the Tower, that my dad tells me is where we would meet her those evenings. The first time I stood on that unassuming strip of asphalt as a student, I was propelled back in time to a vague and ungraspable memory that I hadn’t remembered in years, thinking “I know this place.” Of course I knew it, even if it was stored somewhere dusty in the back of my mind; it’s home.
My commencement speaker for the department of English was Keith Maitland, a UT alum and documentary filmmaker best known for Tower (2016), a film about the 1966 fatal shooting on our beloved campus. As expected, Maitland spoke for a while about the making of Tower and why he chose to pursue the project.
During the address, it was impossible for him to talk about Tower and honor those victims without also paying tribute to two UT students who were murdered on campus in 2016 and 2017. Maitland spoke, with the utmost kindness, gentleness, and respect, about how these kinds of tragedies shouldn’t not be talked about, that these people shouldn’t be swept under the rug and forgotten about for fear of shame, of the university regretfully thinking, “we should have done more.” He told me and my fellow English majors that we, as storytellers, cannot ignore these kinds of stories but should share them, learn from them, and move on together with the help of open communication. I know for sure that talking about these deaths and being able to openly grieve together helped my friends and I cope.
UT was my home when students joined together to make being on campus late at night safer through strengthening the student government’s SURE Walk program. It was my home when the University Health Services made more resources available through the Counseling and Mental Health Center in the aftermath of these tragedies. It was my home when the university held vigils for those recently lost, and thousands of Longhorns came out to show their support for one another.
Students want a university that is safe. They want a place to learn and grow that is supportive, warm, and welcoming to all. At the end of the day, the community is the most important thing. Regardless of what LMS the university uses, no matter the style of classroom, if there is not a strong sense of community at a university, the rest is for naught. When our community felt unsafe, UT ensured our safety and helped us feel okay again. That means more to me than any statistic or any price tag. You can’t quantify community.
We like to say at UT that “once a Longhorn, always a Longhorn.” No matter where I go or where I continue my education, I will always proudly call UT my home.