Communication Currents

Symbolism, Community, and Recovery at Virginia Tech

April 1, 2008
Crisis Communication, Organizational Communication

Organizations invest significant time, energy, and financial resources in symbols to represent identity, culture, and values. The logos, colors, names, slogans, and other visual representations of an organization are designed to create a unique niche in the marketplace, to build customer and employee identification with the organization, and ultimately to enhance investor value. Rarely are those symbols intentionally designed to carry an organization through crisis, yet the organizational culture communicated through its symbols is central to crisis response and recovery. That's part of the Virginia Tech story.

Over the last five years, Virginia Tech endorsed the Principles of Community, a statement of values and principles to guide its activities. We completed a branding initiative to better define our identity, one that represented the values and traditions of the university and identifies our aspirations. Our new tag line, "Invent the Future," worked its way into our collective psyche as we adopted new versions of our trademarked symbols, adapted to new web designs, and focused our university's message around key themes all centered on the people who make Virginia Tech a special place.

Then, the university faced an unprecedented crisis. The individual and community responses to the worst mass shooting in U.S. history on April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech embodied and deepened the meaning of the university's symbols. In our devastation, we turned to rituals and symbols to sustain the community and university. I remember vividly sitting in a basketball arena with 10,000 people in complete silence, listening to Nikki Giovanni summon our strength as we struggled to understand an unimaginable attack on our campus. We stood in a sea of candles around a spontaneous memorial on a warm spring evening, listening to Taps echo across the heart of campus. We watched as pictures from around the world showed people wearing maroon and orange. The visual and verbal symbols of those first days unified and sustained the community. They continue to aid our recovery, even as our experiences enrich and deepen their meaning.

Prior to April 16, 2007, most people who knew what a Hokie was either were members of the Virginia Tech community or college sports fans. Hokie is actually a nonsense word from an 1896 cheer and over time became our name, for athletic teams, but also for everyone associated with Virginia Tech. Of course, the most frequently asked question from those outside the university is "What's a Hokie?" Tired of stumbling over the various pat answers, the New Student Orientation team began giving a T-shirt to each new student that asks, "What's a Hokie?" on the front. Bold letters on the back answer, "I am." The meaning is as varied as the people who claim it. That's tough to communicate beyond campus.

Yet, in the aftermath of April 16, when reporters repeatedly asked, "What's a Hokie?" our answer became richer and deeper. The answer was in the stories of the exceptional men and women who died on April 16, the compassion and courage on campus, and the composure and grace of the Virginia Tech students who responded to an onslaught of media. The meaning developed as nearly all students returned to classes the next Monday and told us they came not just for each other but for their faculty. Those beyond campus joined the community symbolically, wearing maroon and orange, adopting the Hokie name as their own in spirit. The crisis revealed character in a way no advertisement, website, or brochure ever would.

On the day following the tragedy, the university community gathered for the first time in convocation. More than 10,000 people filled the basketball arena with an overflow crowd of 20,000 in the football stadium nearby. Coming together was important to honor those who were killed and injured, to express sympathy and support for their families, and to hold the community together. University leaders, Governor Kaine, President Bush, and religious leaders delivered words of comfort and solace to those gathered. Then, Nikki Giovanni, University Distinguished Professor of English, stood and crystallized the Hokie Spirit in a moving poem. She said, "The Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid." Her refrain, "We Are the Hokies. We Will Prevail. We are Virginia Tech" called the community together in shared purpose. The expression of shared identity and commitment to meet the challenges we faced together was essential as we began to find a way forward.

The organization Hokies United led student response. Hokies United was uniquely experienced to respond to our tragedy and loss. The group formed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, calling the campus to resist ethnic division and organizing fundraising and other relief efforts on campus. They activated again to support troops in Afghanistan, to raise funds for relief after the 2004 tsunami and after Hurricane Katrina. When a crisis hit home, within 24 hours they constructed a memorial made of Hokie stone, the university's architectural signature, created a space in the center of campus for people to leave messages of sympathy and remembrance, and gathered 10,000 candles from around the region in preparation for a candlelight vigil on April 17. The sea of candles is an iconic image on campus. It appears as the banner on the April 16 website, providing a powerful visual symbol of community and remembrance.

Hokies United puts the university's motto, Ut Prosim, That I May Serve, into action. For their fellow students, they demonstrated that action—helping others, staying involved, moving forward—was critical to recovery. With the encouragement and leadership of the parents of one of the victims, the university launched VT Engage, a community service program to honor the victims of April 16. Service projects throughout the year transform negative emotion into positive action, a key component of resilience, and reaffirm one of the university's most central values.

Over the course of the last year, many people asked about the events of April 16 and said they were amazed at the composure of the students who appeared in media coverage. Clearly, no one could orchestrate and coach students for the hundreds of interviews they offered. We could not control or stage expressions of sorrow and grief captured by literally thousands of cameras. I am now certain that crisis does not create character. It reveals it. The individual characters of our students, the shared identity, and values of the Hokie Nation captured in pictures, video, and words were not new, but they were tested on April 16.

On April 16, 2008, Virginia Tech will hold a day of remembrance. We will gather on the drill field, rain or shine, at 10:30 AM in a ceremony honoring the victims of April 16, 2007. At 7:30 PM, we will hold another candlelight vigil. Our ritual and symbolic coming together will mark a transition. Many days still are difficult, but together, we are finding our way forward. In July, we'll welcome the newest group of Hokies. They'll get the T-shirt. And they'll know the answer, “I am,” isn't just a statement of individual identification, but an invitation to represent a special community.

About the author (s)

Rachel L. Holloway

Virginia Tech

Associate Professor