Magazine writer Katrina Sproge discusses safety issues for students in the US, recollecting the shooting at the University of Virginia, as well as the murders of four students from the University of Idaho. Questions arise if accounts like these tarnish the US’ image or if they will be overlooked by incoming exchange students.
Deaths gain meaning as their identities unfold. A boy. A student. A football player. The weight grows with each detail.
Devin, Lavel and D’Sean were the names of three young men murdered at the University of Virginia (UVA) on November 14, 2022. What might have been registered as a sadly common breaking news story originating from the US, was absorbed with a layer of caution by students at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) – a partner to the educational institution in Virginia. Not only do the universities share almost identical abbreviations, but they have also shared European students keen to discover what the overseas continent holds, prepared to overlook its wealth of safety issues disrupting millions of lives.
In addition to the shooting taking place at one of the top public universities in the US, four students from the University of Idaho were brutally murdered in their rental house the day before, on November 13. A few days later, five people were killed and another 18 injured in a violent shooting at a drag show in Colorado on November 19. In the flurry of unfathomable deaths, on November 22, a gunman opened fire at a local Walmart in Virginia as people were preparing for the Thanksgiving weekend.
Amid dreams about the New York City skyline, Disneyland, and diners with stacks of buttery pancakes and bacon, one cannot help but wonder – what the hell is going on in America?
Gun violence – among other tactics aimed to end life – is so widespread in the country that it has blended with the whole image of the United States of America. While Europeans might be more aware of the reality of the US now, as it is hard to ignore the mass of breaking news alerts about all that is happening across the ocean, the desire to see the world presented to us in Hollywood fantasies in person remains intact.
“Growing up, the US was sort of a great country where you could fulfil your dreams. This has changed a little, but I still feel the US college experience is something unique,” says Daan Vegter, who went on an exchange semester to the University of Virginia in 2019 while being a Bachelor’s student of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. “I was aware of the safety issues in the US as I’ve always been fascinated by the country and have studied it as well. I, of course, do agree that the US has an issue with guns and that there might be more dangers, but in my experience, I have not experienced more dangerous conditions there than in Europe.”
Larissa De Lima Almeida, who studied Business Economics at UvA, spent a semester at the University of Virginia in 2018 and agrees with the notion of Europe being no saint when it comes to a sense of security: “When I was there, I did not feel more unsafe [than in Europe]. If I had to make the choice again, I would still go to the US. But I would definitely consider going to a state which has a more stringent gun policy. As in Virginia gun policy is relatively lenient.”
However, the dream of the complex image Europeans have of America – one that the US is desperately holding on to – is disappearing with every shooting incident a European bears witness to in real-time.
Laura Ornee, a student at UvA from 2010 to 2018 and a current PhD student in Virginia, experienced the aftermath of the shooting on November 14 firsthand: “I found out the morning after. I woke up with a bunch of texts from people checking if I was okay. At that point, people were still sheltering in place on campus. I live in Richmond, so I did not experience any of the heightened security and police presence that morning but was continuously in touch with my friends in Charlottesville. Thankfully, they were all safe.” And yet again the unravelling identities added to the meaning of lives lost: “I found out later that morning that one of the victims was a former student of mine, D’Sean Perry. That hit me pretty hard. He was a great guy.”
While it is indeed true that not all of the US is unsafe, just like not all of Europe is a safe haven, European students must be cautious not to underestimate the safety issues in the US before deciding to move there and to prepare in advance for emergencies: “Obviously gun control is a huge issue here, and I wish lawmakers would do something about it. I was completely aware of this before I moved, but as cliché as it is, it’s easy to think it won’t happen to you. This incident has not made me think differently about any of this; I knew, and I still know. The difference is that now I don’t just know it, I feel it too.”
In addition to concerns about gun laws, Laura was worried that the reputation of police forces in America was about to prove itself true: “I feel very nervous when I see a cop here. In the Netherlands, it is less intense. I was really worried the cops would shoot the guy who did it. The shooter was a young black man. Of course, what he did was awful, but in the end, I definitely did not want any more deaths,” pointing towards racial tension between the police and the public in the US.
Somehow, America manages to maintain its dreamland image we see on the silver screen, with Hollywood as its best marketing tool.
But beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Somehow, America manages to maintain its dreamland image we see on the silver screen, with Hollywood as its best marketing tool. But beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.