UAH Shootings: How Do I Leave Respectably?

I’m back, people! And if you missed me as much as I missed writing here, well…you can consider this paragraph the interactive equivalent of a soulful embrace from your creepy uncle that lasts *just* a little bit too long for anyone in the room to be comfortable with.

Oh, how I've missed you...

Now, let’s get back to business. April wants to leave the campus where a shooting took place a few months back. But she’s worried doing so will make her look bad.

Hi Josh! I’m officially addicted to your advice and I hope you can answer my question.

Hooray, I’m an enabler!! 🙂 I’ll do my best.

My BS is in Biology with a teaching certificate. As I approached graduation, I had a very short time in which to make the decision to continue on with my education or to begin a teaching career. I chose to continue my education rather than try to earn an advanced degree in a lab-based program while trying to teach.

Hey, that’s understandable. It’d be a tall order.

Because of student loans (I know, I know!) I had to immediately begin another program if I didn’t want to start repaying at a very inconvenient time in my life. So, I jumped into an adequate program nearby. And, due to unforeseeable events, I am now very unsatisfied with my choice.

Shoot. Go on.

I want to focus my continuing education in molecular biology, with specific interest in several human health topics. I have recently been approached by another university (UAB) with an ideal program, extensive research facilities, and a very lucrative stipend program for PhD students. I’m applying now.

I don’t blame you!

My questions arises from a difficult situation. Not mine, but of my current university. I am currently at UAH.

I have to stop April right there to remind the rest of you reading that University of Alabama-Huntsville is where, back in February, biology professor and apparent nut-job Dr. Amy Bishop went ape-shit and shot and killed three of her fellow professors in the middle of the day. (If you’re like me, you may have remembered the incident but forgot the school where it happened.)

I applied for and was accepted before the shooting, and the program has changed significantly since. Not only is class selection significantly limited, but the research opportunities are greatly diminished. The several research labs that I was interested in are no longer available.

I’m assuming, pretty safely I think, that this is because three biology professors were killed and another one is now probably gonna spend the rest of her life in prison.

The problem is that I don’t know how to explain to the new program admissions board why I am not planning on finishing my degree at UAH.

I do — you tell them that the shooting wiped out about 1/3 of the biology department. Which, by the way, they already know, so you won’t surprise or disappoint them in the least.

It really is that simple, but let me continue addressing your additional thoughts:

I know they will need a clear understanding of my motives so they do not believe I am a “flight risk” for their program.

Nope. Again, that was a crazy, once-in-a-lifetime thing that happened to that particular biology program at that school at that point in time. They’ll understand and completely accept the reason you’re leaving.

When New Orleans folks had to evacuate and relocate because of Katrina, no one thought they were all lease-breakers or mortgage cheats for doing so. It was a seismic event that disrupted their whole lives. Your situation isn’t quite as acute, but it’s close enough to make the same comparison and expect similar results.

I understand that they would not want to invest the kind of money they are offering in financial aid packages if they were afraid I would simply quit the program. But how do I explain that I have this problem without belittling the real victims of the shooting.

With an event like that, of course, those who got the worst of it are the victims themselves and their families. But there are tons of other collateral damage, and you’re not an insensitive chump for absorbing some of it. That’s just the way it is.

I don’t want to sound like a cry baby when there were lives lost and families ruined. In several rough drafts of my admissions essays, I feel like I am walking a thin line between selfishly focusing only on the personal, academic effects of the shooting or focusing too much on the tragedy and sounding as if I am “playing up” the events for pity points.

I think either approach will be fine; after all, it’s not as if any particular biology Ph.D program is going to be receiving dozens of applicants from students who lived through the UAH shootings. It’s old news to you, but not to the committees, so I think that anxiety about admissions people thinking you’re a whiny baby is totally misplaced. Not going to happen.

I’m not sure which side to err on, or if it is inappropriate to even mention the reason I wish to leave my current program. Because of the close proximity of the two schools, there is a chance that faculty at UAB either knew or knew of the victims of the shooting, so that complicates things even more. I don’t want to step on any toes and ruin my chances for acceptance!

I’ll give you an example from my own life. I started my pay-per-click advertising agency in April 2001. Five months later the 9/11 attacks happened, and they nearly killed my business and bankrupted me personally because the entire world froze up and stopped spending money. It was a very, very rough time.

Now…are you pissed at me because I wrote that preceding paragraph complaining about how 9/11 — the most deadly attack in our history — affected me, personally? No, of course you’re not. And 9/11 killed thousands of people and changed everyone (I believe) forever.

So, no one’s going to be pissed at you, either, for simply acknowledging that the tragic event had some lingering effects for you — even if they weren’t deadly.

I’m at a loss. I need to finish these essays soon, and nothing is sounding right. I need them to be as solid as possible since this is an amazing opportunity. Any thoughts from you or your readers would be greatly appreciated.

You’ve got mine — best of luck with your application! Please come back and let us know how your situation turns out!

— What about you guys? Do you think she’s OK to mention the shooting, or not? What should she say? Let us know in the comments below.

22 thoughts on “UAH Shootings: How Do I Leave Respectably?”

  1. Honestly, I feel that if the shootings have indeed bothered you to the point that you want to transfer than you should. No one should have to experience something like that all. There is nothing wrong with that choice so I say go for it.

  2. I believe you should tell them you no longer wish to stay because of the shooting. If you afraid of what might happen in the future or still traumatized about your past experience, there is nothing wrong with telling them your leaving because of the shooting.

  3. YES! LEAVE. it is no longer an environment for learning after this.
    As a parent, I have toured many campuses of all sizes, in many states and I have seen too many opportunities for “issues of all sorts” on campus that do not exist in our communities as they are not tolerated. What is up with that!!
    There are small communities with the same size population as many campuses and they take greater measures for safety and what it not tolerated, than I see on college campuses The colleges need to get their act together, and get their head out of the sand. Ramp up safety and be proactive on what will not be tolerated period. Make the campus environment a place of learning and not a climate where there is room for any sketchy conduct let alone making it easy to kill people. To be preventative and proactive, our neighborhoods have block watches and other community policing that have worked for years. Campuses must do the same. All staff and students are required to participate in educating them how “not” to create situations that compromise their safety and that of others. What to watch out for and to report not ignore anything that they have been trained by the campus to recognize as a potential danger to the safety of all on campus. Empower them to be smart about their own personal safety and the campus community as a whole. One should not assume parents ever taught their children and young adults how to be safe and be aware of what is going on around them. I see less of that and it is more the norm sadly. As a parent/tax payer, I have no problem getting snarky with the campus police when I see things that compromise campus safety and the attitude of the police is such that I am more aware of what is going on just from random observations two or three times a year.

  4. Since you say the program has been materially diminished after many of the instructors were killed, I see no reason why you shouldnot transfer to a school that will meet your needs and goals. The violence of the shootings had an effect on you as a person as well, so actually you have two valid reasons to leave. I say, go for it.

  5. You know, if the program has changed that much, practically speaking, and that was the main reason for you going there, then why would you stay? Put the tragedy portion aside for a moment and think about how you would feel about staying if no one had been killed or injured, but the effects were the same (1/3 of the staff gone, labs not available, etc).

    As far as mentioning what happened, I defer to Josh. He’s the leading authority here after all. If he thinks it’s okay to bring it up, then it most likely is. It’s not like you’re going to write a ‘poor me!’ essay. You’re just going to talk about the effects of a pretty disturbing event (and if that school is close by, you can bet those folks were bothered by it too) on your educational plans. If the receiving schools think there’s a problem with that, you probably don’t really want to attend there anyway, right?
    And please accept my condolences on all of this. What a terrible thing to have happen all around.
    Take care of yourself.

  6. I, personally, do not see a shooting as a reason to fly the coop unless the fox has not been caught yet. As the situation has been resolved (and I’m assuming there are no more ‘nutty professors’), I see no reason for Ms…PhD to leave UNLESS there is no opportunity. If all of the programs she was interested in vanished in the wake of the tragic incident and her interests would be clearly met elsewhere, cautiously, carefully go. (In short, if you plan on leaving, make sure you have your plan thought out. You don’t want to leave and find that the other program would not work and everything is suddenly a mess.)

  7. As the significant other of a professor at Auburn University, I can tell you that departments here have already seen some applicants from UAH for exactly this reason. Perhaps the most praised that I’ve heard of was that of a young lady that stated that she was looking for a new school because this tragedy and resulting rebuilding of the program made it difficult for her to get the most out of her academic opportunities. While she felt for the families, she wanted to transfer to a program that would allow her to re-focus on her studies so that she could present herself as a stronger, more knowledgeable applicant after graduation.
    My boyfriend does graduate recruiting, and anytime you push the fact that you’re looking at the big picture and quality of education, that’s a winner, because it shows the admissions staff your level of maturity. You’re not running from anything, but you see that the clock is ticking and you want to get the best education you can in the time you have to be in college.
    Ironically, it was shortly after this shooting occurred that Auburn was getting ready to do notifications for tenure status. It was a tense time for all of the departments that had faculty up for tenure and promotion, especially those who had people that didn’t make it.

  8. I’m slightly confused. Does she want to leave simply because the shootings happened (and/or there’s some concern something similar would happen again), or because her department was effectively demolished with the loss of those professors?

    Either way, I don’t think it really matters. If there’s concern about leaving due to fear it’d happen again, I’m pretty sure no school has had more than one shooting, so once a school has had it you’re pretty much okay to assume it won’t happen again. But if it’s just a “memories so I don’t want to be here thing” that’s an ENTIRELY valid reason to leave, and I can’t imagine a committee holding that against someone. Likewise, I can’t imagine a committee holding it against her if she says, “Look, the loss of those professors demolished my department and so I need to be at a school with a functional department… blah blah blah.”

    In short (too late), I’d mention it, but I wouldn’t make the focus of the essay about the shootings. Just the reason the shootings are causing you to move on.

  9. My little sister stayed at Virginia Tech after the shootings, but her department was pretty much unaffected and she still felt safe. Several of her friends transferred to different schools because they had too many bad memories, and that was enough of an explanation.

    I think if you say “Hey, the entire reason I wanted to attend this school is gone,” I don’t think people will hold it against you.

  10. I think you should go wherever you want. I would’ve transferred immediately after the shooting, and applaud you for staying as long as you have. You shouldn’t feel forced to stay in an environment where a) you don’t want to be, but b) your education is being hindered. It’s not your fault.

  11. In the business world, situations happen that alter your plans throughout your career whether it be downsizing, change in the corporate mission, or a catastrophic event.

    I don’t want to demean the tradgedy that took place at UAH, but I agree with Josh 100%. This is your dream, your career, and the events that took place with the program being altered is out of your control.

    In writing the essay, I would recommend focusing on the positive. By this I mean the courses/labs that you feel they offer and will make a difference in your education and prepare you for future work. You don’t have to play up the tradgedy, just make a brief statement :

    EXAMPLE: “due to the unforseen tradgedy, UAH was forced to close these critical courses that would have impacted my education……” then a brief statement on how this loss will affect your future plans and goals.

    If for whatever reason you want to leave a job to pursue another opportunity that seems better, you doing the same tap dance. You have to remain positive. Focus on what you want to acheive and how the employer (in your case school) will help you acheive that goal making you the ideal candidate.

    No need to spend a whole lot of time in an essay on the incident. Everyone knows about the tradgedy and no need to open up a can of worms. I also think the benefit of focusing on the positive is going to make you look very good in the eyes of the entrance examiners showing how serious you are about your education and your professionalism, personal decision making, and a whole host of other “power hitter” attributes that will get their attention.

  12. Tell them straight up, the biology department is not the same one that you applied to be in. Just because you were not the most harmed/affected doesn’t mean you weren’t victim at all.

  13. I think it mostly depends on the biggest reason why you’re leaving. If you’re leaving because the program has changed a lot and you feel like it would be better to be in another place, then by all means transfer! However, if you’re mostly wanting to leave because of the shootings and what you think *might* happen… well, that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself. My brother goes to Northern Illinois University, where 6 people were killed (and 18 injured) his freshman year, and his sophomore year someone was shot in his dorm building. He’s still going there, and he’s glad he didn’t leave because it is still a great school and it still is the right place for him. But if your school/program truly has done downhill, 1. transfer and 2. be super honest about why.

  14. April,

    First my condolences to you, and everyone affected there. It is truely tragic.

    As for how the shooting affected you I think you have to acknowledge it. Face it admissions at any college in the area/state is going to be aware of what happened. So you can’t ignore it. But how you mention it, as you have noticed, can be important. Several others mentioned not making it the focus of your essay.

    Yes, address it as it happened. Mention that since it happened your program has been cutback–due to loss of professors. This means you have become limited in future course work offered at UAH. Mention your concern that this will negatively impact your education going forward. (This is not whinning or self pity.) Tell them your are looking to transfer to UAB so you can fully experience a program that offers a full program.

    After that you can focus on the positives of attending a program with what UAB offers. Stress the access to labs and the courses you are interested in and where that course experience can lead you in the future.

    In that way you aren’t ignoring the problem, not whinning, and being direct. You will acknowledge that the shooting happened and the UAH program has suffered because of it. It also shows you are not wallowing in pity that it happened, but are looking to the future. You’re not letting it stop you.

    No one can fault you for wanting to change colleges after a shooting. I’m sure there were many that transfered after other such incidents, whether programs suffered or not. Your personal well-being, saftey, and future matter. If you can’t get the courses you need where you are by all means switch. Regardless of the shooting if you find you are in a program that doesn’t offer what you need for where you want to end up you should switch. The shooting is the cause of UAH cutting back some courses due to the loss of the professors. You did not create the problem, but as a college student it is your job to get the best education possible. So if you can’t do that at UAH no one can fault you for it.

    Good luck.

  15. In your letter to Josh, you actually wrote “I?m not sure which side to err on, or if it is inappropriate to even mention the reason I wish to leave my current program.”
    What??? Not mention it? Think about that for a few seconds (hopefully that’s all you need to realize how ridiculous that idea sounds) – other schools are familiar with what happened at UAH and to come from there and make no mention of it would, I think, be very, very weird. I mean, you could say that your department lost several professors and not say how, but don’t you think that might be kind of weird? Why should you try to hide something that everyone knows about, and what would it say if you did?
    What are others’ thoughts on this? Do you agree / disagree with what I’ve expressed?

  16. Thank you, everyone, for your kind responses. The essay is finally complete, and does contain a paragraph dedicated to my reasons for wanting to leave UAH. The perspective offered by Leeja was especially helpful in understanding the viewpoints of admissions faculty, and helped me shape the overall “feel” of my essay.

    To those who misunderstood my initial question and my desire to leave my current program: I am choosing to leave the school because of a fundamental change in the biology program, particularly at the graduate level. The research and the classes are now so limited that I cannot graduate with the knowledge that I had hoped to gain when I applied. The new program offers more than I could ever hope to learn, along with other perks. The question I asked was specifically pertaining to how I should explain this situation to the board of admissions, and I do appreciate the feedback from Judge Josh and all of the commentators.

    Nuria: Thanks for showing the complete idiocy of that comment. From that standpoint, I do sound like a moron, and would be a fool to not address the issue.

    Thanks again to all who contributed, and I will post again when I hear of a decision concerning my fate for the next 3-5 years!

  17. If you are only leaving because the shooting scared you, I wouldn’t be so quick to pack my bags if I were you!
    My freshman year of high school, a senior committed suicide in the gym in front of hundreds of students during March. We were all traumatized for the remainder of the year. I avoided the gym building when I could. However, it made us grow stronger and closer as a student body. I am now a senior and I still love my school with every fiber of my being!
    So, don’t get too scared. That was simply a mishap, it doesn’t define the school. As horrible as things like that are, life goes on.

    1. I think April’s reason for leaving was all about timing. It’s not so much that she couldn’t get over the shooting incident itself (which if she knew any of the professors killed, it may indeed affect her personally – she never mentioned this, so I’m thinking this is not an issue), it was more about the department losing key staff and losing programs because of it. Had she been in her first year of university, the program may have had time to recover and be rebuilt by her graduate year. But with her needing the lost programs NOW, she has to make the move now, not wait until the professors are replaced and the program rebuilt. It is also entirely possible that when the program is rebuilt that the new professors will bring their own specialties. So…new biology program altogether – not the one she signed up for.

      Time makes most things heal (and makes us stronger) – but sometimes “time” is not on our side.

  18. If the reason you are attending is no longer there, there’s really no point in staying. You’re just going to feel bad and wish you transfered sooner. I didn’t have the exact same situation, but the end result? I ended up leaving from two different colleges to finally settling on a full blown art college, because the other schools just had horrbile art programs. I wasn’t happy until I found a decent program and now I’m quite happy. No one sees me as a risk despite having being on my third college. I adore my new college now and don’t regret anything, besides not going there to begin with.

    You started with a great college, but now that program is gone, time to move on. At least that’s the way I see it. I don’t think anyone is going to think less of you, because it’s a matter of needing to go somewhere that has your program so you can move on in your education. I wouldn’t worry about it.

  19. You know what’s scary? I had never heard about that shooting until I read this post, and I usually pay attention to the news.
    ( I’m from Canada.)

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