Emerson students reflect on nearby terrorist attacks

by Cathleen Cusachs / Beacon Staff • December 2, 2015

During a Paris night filled with heartache, terror, and pain, five Emerson students persevered with stories to tell. 

A group of friends from the college’s European Center headed to France for the weekend of Nov. 13. Victor Velle, Chance Molenda, Sapni Ponguleti, Elizabeth McDowell, and Josephine Bryan fortunately survived the terror attacks which took more than 120 lives that night.

Velle, who was born in Paris, was traveling to the city in anticipation of introducing his newfound best friend and fellow castle resident Molenda to his family. The two sophomore visual and media arts majors scheduled the wrong bus that day and had a choice of paying more for an earlier departure, or waiting until the later bus. Whether it was due to fate, pure luck, or convenient logic, they picked the former. It was in the aftermath they discovered the later bus would have arrived right at the site of the first bomb, the national stadium, within the hour of explosion. Despite their close call, the duo said they didn’t regret traveling.

“I think it’s important to be cautious,” Molenda said, “but it’s more important to not be fearful, because that’s the goal. If [the terrorists] get a positive response from this attack, meaning shutting [places] down and everybody sitting around being terrified, then that’s how you get more attacks.”

Ponguleti, McDowell, and Bryan also had their own mind-opening experiences. The three said they were finishing a meal at a restaurant when they received multiple texts asking about their safety from terrorists, the first they heard about the attacks. After contact was made with Emerson staff members at the campus in the Netherlands, per procedure, they immediately sought shelter. They said they were foolishly walking on the street for about 15-20 minutes looking for a taxi. It wasn’t until after safely arriving at their hostel, Ponguleti, a sophomore marketing communication major, said they realized they were a little less than a 15 minute drive from the shootings.

McDowell, a sophomore performing arts major, and Ponguleti both told a story about a British woman they ran into that night. She assumed the three of them were alright and “used to it” when she heard they’re from Boston and India, respectively.

“I wasn’t as scared of something happening to me as I was what was to become of us as humans,” Ponguleti said, “You don’t get used to it. How do you get used to something like that?”

Besides sparking memories of horrific terrorist attacks in her past, Ponguleti said her Indian nationality led to racial backlash. She said she received many hateful stares and remarks. One man got up and moved to another bench with disdain as soon as she sat down next to him in the airport, simply because of her skin color, she said. These distrustful assumptions she faced affected her so much, she had decided to keep them to herself. Ponguleti, filled with emotion, said as horrible as the Paris attacks were, they still don’t justify racism.

“I hate how there are still some ignorant people in the world who think all brown people are terrorists,” Ponguleti said, “or all Muslims are terrorists. It’s like saying, ‘Oh a white man shot someone at a university, that means all white men are awful.’”

Ponguleti booked a new flight to leave a day early. She said she had to arrive to the airport many hours in advance, knowing security would stop her at least once.

Velle, who said he was staying in his brother’s apartment in the city, said Paris was back to normal by the end of the weekend. He referred to President François Hollande’s announcement that Syrian refugees are still allowed into the country as a reflection of France’s strong core beliefs. Although Velle moved to Los Angeles, California, when he was three years old, he said he visited France yearly and identifies with the culture. According to him, the French are not keen on intruders and won’t let fear change their daily lives.

Every week, students at Emerson’s castle program are required to fill out an online form documenting exactly where they’re going to be and how to contact them. The Office of Student Affairs uses this information in case of crucial situations such as this. Johnny Hermsen, an OSA staff member, said he was in bed when he received a call on his emergency phone. After that, he checked to see who was in Paris at the time, and contacted them to check on their safety. He said he thought it worked flawlessly.

“I think that’s the normal thing to do,” Hermsen, 34, said. “If all these 85 students [at the castle] are our kids, we need to know if they’re safe or not… So yes, I like that procedure.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by all five students. And, although the effects on each varied, they ultimately all felt the same positive reaction about their semester abroad.

“I’m glad I came to the castle,” Ponguleti said. “I’m glad that every experience that has happened to me has happened, except for France. But, that doesn’t mean I’d take back all those for France not to have happened to me… These things change you, they make you look at things differently.”