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Generation 9/11: Education professor conducts landmark survey of college students' responses to Sept. 11, 2001

It may be due to the year you were born or the fact that you drove a white BMW and loved Gap khakis a little too much back in the ‘80s, but, whatever the reason, you’ve been packaged and labeled.

If you entered the world in 1966, you’re a Gen X-er. If you came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, Tom Brokaw was kind enough to deem you a member of “The Greatest Generation.” If you lived in an urban loft, pulled down a six-figure salary, had 25 pastel Izods and boasted a swanky college pedigree during the Reagan years, you were a yuppie.

UT students gather to read a special edition of the Austin American-Statesman published on Sept. 11, 2001
“For someone our age, this was something that had never happened before.” — Student interviewed by Dr. Patricia Somers.

But, if you were in high school or college when radical Islamic terrorists attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001, are you Generation 9/11?

Dr. Patricia Somers, an associate professor in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, is intrigued by that question and has decided to go to the source for some answers. Currently in the first stage of a planned five-year series of studies, Somers and her research colleagues have surveyed about 50 students at colleges and universities in the Midwest to gather preliminary data on student responses to the most deadly attack on U.S. soil in more than 300 years.

“I study higher education, specifically college students,” says Somers, who is in the Department of Educational Administration, “and have become very interested in how university students may have reacted differently from other populations to the events of 9/11.

“This preliminary, exploratory study examines both the direct and indirect effects of 9/11 on students at two-year, four-year, residential and non-residential colleges. Significant shifts in college students’ attitudes will have an effect on the future—politics, economics and social policy—so what we’re looking for are trends and to see if there’s any evidence of an emerging ‘Generation 9/11.’”

As a theoretical framework for the study, the researchers chose terror management theory (TMT), a relatively new system of principles that was first used to analyze Americans’ psychological response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Terror management theory states that when humans are faced with their own mortality by random acts of terror, they respond in ways that show their lives have meaning and purpose,” says Somers.

According to TMT, immediately following 9/11 most Americans shared similar reactions to the catastrophe. The first reaction was shock and disbelief, or an inability to absorb the reality of an attack on an American city. The second was the search for some sort of distraction that would take their minds off the event and the third tendency was to withdraw from society and take actions to protect themselves should more attacks occur.

Patricia Somers
Dr. Patricia Somers

Somers’ interviews at five universities revealed that students did share some of the same reactions as the general population. About 65 percent of all students interviewed reported feeling shock as a primary response to the terrorist attacks, with one student stating, “I just couldn’t think…it was all kind of blank at that point, and I went into the bathroom and threw some water on my face and didn’t even talk to anybody.”

Mirroring the disbelief of the rest of the nation, one interviewee said, “I thought it was a joke—the stupid radio program and people thinking they were really funny. I seriously felt like it was Orson Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ or something.”

Although most students who were interviewed did not report engaging in efforts to escape coverage and reminders of the event, about 40 percent did recall feeling an overwhelming desire to be with their families and 45 percent said that they felt a strong urge to be “part of a community.” Some sought out the religious community or gained comfort from attending candlelight vigils, while others banded with fraternity brothers, residents of their dorms or at a friend’s apartment for prolonged stretches of time.

“I remember that night everyone—all the Maryland students and all of the D.C. students—just wanting to talk to each other,” said one student who was interviewed. Another vividly recalls her very frightened friend calling to tell her about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, and she remembers responding, “Maybe we need to get together to say goodbye. Maybe this is the end….”

I think it's probably going to be like my parents' generation with [the assassination of] JFK...and my grandparents' generation with Pearl Harbor. I think most people are going to look back and say, 'I remember where I was and what I was doing when I found out.' -- Student response to Somers' surveyAccording to Somers and her colleagues, the “huddling” impulses that students felt and acted upon did not fit the predictions of terror management theory. Neither did the direct reaction of anger toward the U.S. government and the media that 45 percent of students reported feeling.

Related to this anger was a direct response of fear for others’ safety. About 33 percent of the students who were interviewed stated that they were afraid retaliation would needlessly claim more innocent American lives and members of the American Muslim community would suffer a backlash.

“I was so scared because I knew that from then on, no Muslim or anyone who looked like they could possibly be Muslim would ever be the same again,” stated one student who was interviewed.

In addition to the direct and immediate responses of shock and confusion, terror management theory also asserts that people experience a distal, or delayed and indirect, reaction to terrorism. When Somers and her colleagues asked students about indirect responses, they instructed the interviewees to focus on the six months following the catastrophe.

With the 9/11 tragedy, TMT analysts found that in the weeks and months following the attacks, most Americans actively searched for information that would help them understand the catastrophe and make sense of a chaotic and dangerous world. Statistics show that Bible sales increased after the attacks, for example, and religious service attendance increased as people sought answers.

Americans also experienced a surge in patriotism, and the evidence of this allegiance was very visible. Sales of flags skyrocketed and flag images were displayed on everything from shirts and hats to homes and vehicles. Patriotism pushed President Bush’s ratings to an all-time high, and strong support for members of the military was voiced.

Students gather at the foot of the UT Tower in the months after 9/11 for a demonstration
According to Somers’ research, many college students exhibited “skeptical patriotism” in the weeks and months after 9/11 and were inclined to separate loyalty from pride in America.

TMT analysts found that many Americans felt much less tolerance for free speech in the months after 9/11 and that an increased level of censorship prevailed along with an increase in bigotry. Newspapers were filled with accounts of hate crimes against Americans of Arab descent and mosques from coast to coast were vandalized.

“So how closely did our college students reflect the distal responses of the general population? It was very interesting,” states Somers. “Around 50 percent of the students at three of the five institutions said they felt an increased sense of patriotism, and about 65 percent definitely expressed a desire to gather more information in the weeks and months after 9/11.

“Some students reported watching CNN all day and doing their homework a lot less, and at the one public research university that was surveyed there was increased enrollment in world politics and religion courses and signs of a greater level of interest in international and national news. But with the distal responses, we also started seeing some trends that were not predicted by terror management theory.”

Although a majority of students experienced feelings of nationalism, Somers and her colleagues found that the mindset of many could more accurately be described as “skeptical patriotism.” An overwhelming 80 percent of the students surveyed at the intellectually elite public research university hastened to define patriotism in a way that distinguished loyalty from pride in America.

One student commented, “I think patriotism blinds people to what’s really going on,” while many were repulsed by the songs calling for retaliation and the “cheering for America as if it were a football team.” Some noted that the superficial, widespread visible signs of patriotism were “hypocritical and false,” while others were concerned that Americans had stopped viewing the U.S. government’s actions objectively and were following the emotional tide, “waving a flag.”

In addition to revealing skeptical patriotism, students who were interviewed also differed from the population discussed in TMT literature in their increased global awareness, heightened political awareness and desire for more civic engagement.

About 47 percent of all students interviewed stated that they felt a greater interest in the global community post-9/11 and, although only two respondents reported changing their political views as a result of the terrorist attacks, most stated that the attacks intensified their existing political views.

One student commented, “I’m a liberal, I’ve always been a liberal and Sept. 11 did not make me any less of a liberal. It may even have made me more of an activist about it.” Another student at the other end of the political spectrum but with the same inclination said, “It [9/11] put foreign policy and foreign affairs at the forefront of what I cared about, politically speaking—it might have made me stronger as a conservative Republican.”

Students gather on the UT campus during a candlelight vigil in the wake of 9/11
In the wake of 9/11, students at The University of Texas at Austin, and around the nation, sought comfort in candlelight vigils, memorial ceremonies and forums where the tragedy was discussed.

Perhaps most striking was the number of students who could point to specific actions they had taken to become more civically involved and contribute to the community at large. About one third of the interviewees reported increased levels of civic engagement after 9/11.

One student organized a campus forum called “Patriotism, Can It Lead to Hate?” and stated, “I remember that from then on, I always tried to think about the other side of the story.”  Others participated in community events that related to diversity and encouraged open dialogue or joined social justice-oriented organizations. About 20 percent of the students said that they were altering their academic or career path because of the terrorist attacks.

“Although we’re just beginning our studies, there does seem to be some evidence of the emergence of a more civically inclined, altruistic generation that takes a world view and will be better-equipped to deal with global politics and a world economy,” says Somers. “We’re continuing our research and will begin interviews for the second part of our study in the spring, along with further analysis by gender and ethnicity of our current data.”

Whether today’s young adults will march through history with the badge “Generation 9/11” has yet to be seen. Civic-mindedness may be short-lived and interest in global affairs may subside.

“Only time will tell if Sept. 11, 2001 was a defining moment for an entire generation and the beginning of a new era in American history,” says Somers, “or just a terrible national tragedy that occupied our minds and wrenched emotions for a short while before it faded into memory.”

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  Updated 12 September 2005
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