Genna Gliottoni had a panic attack last month at the movie theater. The 21-year-old Northern Illinois University student couldn’t understand at first why her heart rate and breathing were racing out of control after she took her seat, but she later made the connection. She hadn’t been in an auditorium-style setting since her freshman year. Not since she attended her general education classes at Cole Hall.
Genna Gliottoni had a panic attack last month at the movie theater. The 21-year-old Northern Illinois University student couldn’t understand at first why her heart rate and breathing were racing out of control after she took her seat, but she later made the connection.
She hadn’t been in an auditorium-style setting since her freshman year. Not since she attended her general education classes at Cole Hall.
Gliottoni, of Chicago Heights, who will be a senior this fall, didn’t have classes in the lecture hall last semester, but struggled this summer with stress and anxiety stemming from the Feb. 14 shooting, when former NIU student Steven Kazmierczak killed five students and wounded 16 others before fatally shooting himself.
“My idea that I was safe was completely shaken and destroyed, but I’m trying to build it back,” Gliottoni said. “Everything just hit me.”
Because a return to classes will mean a busier schedule and the calming distraction of routine, Gliottoni is looking forward to going back to NIU for the fall. Classes started Monday.
“All I can think about is going back to school because I’m anxious to start classes,” Gliottoni said. “There’s more of a sense of community now, and I feel like I’m a part of it. I feel like that’s my home and that’s where I should be.”
NIU Police Chief Donald Grady says that students can expect to see enhancements in residence hall security and more police on staff, in addition to other safety improvements.
“We have a very good relationship with the students here,” said Grady, adding that students moving into the dorms and returning to campus have seemed very upbeat, positive and excited about returning to school.
“We will certainly be vigilant in the way we do our policing,” promises Grady, who was praised earlier this year along with his staff for their swift response to the February shooting.
“I feel safe going to NIU,” English major Tony Gasparaitis said. “I don’t go in with any ill will or any kind of fear. I have faith in my faculty and the people around me.”
Gasparaitis, 22, of Crystal Lake, stayed in DeKalb for the summer, working at UPS and on campus as a teacher and counselor at NIU’s Huskie Pup Camp, a summer program for children. Although he spent the entire summer near NIU, Gasparaitis said he didn’t think very much about the shooting, partly because he didn’t come into contact with too many fellow students during the summer break.
“I think that a lot of it had to do with the fact that I dealt with kids the whole summer,” he said. “They had no idea what happened.”
Sean Jensen, entering his last semester at NIU this fall, shares Gasparaitis’ faith in the university. The 22-year-old English and philosophy major was nearly 400 miles from his parents’ home in Hayward, Wis., when the shooting happened. While most students piled into their cars and steered home, Jensen stayed on campus during the weeks that followed. He healed a great deal during that time, he said, because “I got a sense of what other people were doing in response, which was helpful to see.”
“My opinion of the school hasn’t changed at all,” Jensen said. “If anything, it’s more positive because I was able to witness the community outreach.”
Ryan Eichberger, 20, a junior at NIU this fall, found that going home to Prairie Grove for the summer helped lessen the reminders of the tragedy. Last semester, Eichberger took an anthropology class with Gayle Dubowski, one of the students killed in the shooting.
“It just cast a really somber shadow over the class,” he said. “Going into the summer, I kind of stepped away from everything that happened. Leaving town was kind of like leaving it behind for a while.”
Eichberger says he’s excited to return to classes, even though he’ll still be thinking about the tragedy.
“It’ll definitely be on my mind, but I think I’m just looking to resume the pattern of classes and kind of concentrate on that,” he said. “I’m a little bit more wary about the possibilities that things can happen. The main thought that I have is, the best way to overcome it or get past it is just to be as much of a community as you can be. It affects our lives, but we don’t have to let it control our lives. We can hope for something better.”
Jeniece Smith can be contacted at (815) 987-1356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.