JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)--Only two weeks after a tornado ripped through Union University, students and faculty brought a sense of optimism in returning to their classes Feb. 20.
In addition to a revised schedule and, in some cases, relocated classrooms and offices, the many changes to the campus caused by the EF-4 tornado continue to weigh on hearts and minds at the Jackson, Tenn., campus. Two students remain hospitalized from their injuries.
"It was strange walking onto campus and not seeing what I used to call home, yet having to continue to act as though everything was normal," said Natalie Newberry of Memphis, Tenn. "Walking from the Student Union Building to the Penick Academic Complex and not seeing any dorms was strange to me. It threw my day off."
Classes that were meeting on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are now compressed into Mondays and Wednesdays with extended class times. Fridays are reserved for chapel services, makeup classes and labs.
"It's like the first day of school -– ever," associate professor of business Roland Porter said. "Not just the first day of the semester, but the first day of class -– ever." Porter said some students' notes from previous classes were destroyed or lost in the Feb. 5 tornado. "Somehow we've got to make up for that," he said.
Like hundreds of other Union students, Emily Watlington of Chattanooga, Tenn., understands that adjustments will be needed to compensate for time lost after the tornado. For senior social work majors like Watlington, the spring semester is reserved for field practicum. But she has missed a number of hours stemming from the storm.
"Professors have told us: 'Make that the least of your worries, we will get you hours.' They are trying to make sure we are taking care of ourselves and they are helping us to do what it takes to graduate May 17," Watlington said.
Porter noted, "I think we'll all be flexible until we get up to speed together again.... There are some gaps where students need me to help them and I have to be flexible in assisting them. But working together, we're going to make it OK."
Christian studies professor Kelvin Moore said, "It's good to be back and see everybody here. The atmosphere is very positive and we're looking forward to classes and a new beginning."
Newberry reflected that "it will be a difficult transition. However, the way the university is handling the care of the students will bring about a smoother transition for us because they understand our needs before we even understand them."
One such way the university is handling students' needs is through a "Care and Comfort" station in the Student Union Building, giving students a place to receive counsel, express their emotions and take steps toward a life of normalcy.
Newberry said the station's distribution of even simple things like teddy bears does not necessarily benefit students' academic careers, but it certainly helps in giving them "a sense of rest."
Union President David S. Dockery kicked off the restart of the semester in a campus-wide chapel service Feb. 19, spurring students forward in continuing their studies and their lives.
"It's hard to imagine 14 days ago where we stood," Dockery told students, faculty and staff. "But by God's grace we are here tonight to enjoy one another's fellowship, to reconnect together and to focus on the God who has sustained us."
Brittany Howerton is a senior public relations student at Union University.