- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Locked in the laboratories of the Virginia Tech classroom building where 31 persons died in a mass shooting in April are the keys to the future — of graduate students and of an engineering program itself.

University officials announced last week that they will reopen Norris Hall later this month to allow engineering programs with offices and laboratories there to resume, although no classes will meet in the building again. The building had been locked and barricaded with a chain-link fence since April 16, when student Seung-hui Cho fatally shot 30 persons in its classrooms as well as himself after killing two in a dormitory.

Virginia Tech’s specialized engineering science and mechanics department — one of only three in the nation — is the primary occupant of the three-story building. As his students fell further behind in their research, putting their funding and in some cases degrees in jeopardy, department head Ishwar Puri said he pleaded with university officials to find laboratory space.

“I just didn’t feel right holding their future hostage,” he said in a telephone interview. “Their careers are now on hold.”

Not only are current experiments in limbo and some students’ degrees delayed, Mr. Puri said, but the whole program is stalled.

Laboratory space on campus is tight, graduate student Nathan Post said Friday, plus Norris Hall contains needed equipment that cannot be moved.

Nearly half of the department’s students were able to use other labs. But Mr. Puri said the work of 50 graduate students, some undergraduate students and research proposals of the department’s 25 faculty members have been held up as well.

Mr. Post, who grew up in Barnard, Vt., had tests under way in Norris Hall on the durability of a lightweight composite material the U.S. Navy is getting ready to use in ship hulls. He may not be able to complete his doctorate in December as planned because of the delay.

“I am so far behind schedule now that I am not sure if it will be possible,” he said.

Virginia Tech announced after the shootings that students would not be required to finish coursework or take final exams for the spring semester, but Mr. Puri said research can’t simply be forgiven because “it’s the core of the degree.”

Mr. Puri says his goal is to get his faculty and students back to work, whether in Norris Hall or somewhere else. Had the university decided to tear down Norris Hall and rebuild, it could have taken at least three years to get his department going again.

The decision to reopen Norris Hall was not purely pragmatic, Mr. Puri said. “It’s a decision that’s been made to ensure the survival of the program.”

Mr. Puri said he expects many students and faculty members to feel unsettled in Norris Hall at first. He thinks it’s important to have the entire building refurbished so new wall paint, ceilings and floors in a classroom wing where students and faculty members died will not be a glaring reminder of the scene.

“The tragedy is our building was violated,” Mr. Puri said. “We lost friends. We lost colleagues.”

Of those killed, 11 students and three professors were in the engineering program.

Still, both Mr. Puri and Mr. Post say returning to the laboratories will help students and staff with their emotional healing. Mr. Post says he feels sure the students and faculty members lost on April 16 would want them to continue.

“I think that people don’t realize how hard it has been for us,” Mr. Puri said. “We’re mentally drained. We’re emotionally exhausted. We just want to get back to work.”

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