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Opinion >  Column

University of Idaho student essay: ‘The fragile bubble I felt around our town quickly pops’

“We were friends,” says Lacy McElwain, right, as she and Mya Nagrone attend a vigil in Coeur d’Alene on Nov. 16 for four students killed at University of Idaho: Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Ethan Chapin and Xana Kernodle.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
“We were friends,” says Lacy McElwain, right, as she and Mya Nagrone attend a vigil in Coeur d’Alene on Nov. 16 for four students killed at University of Idaho: Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Ethan Chapin and Xana Kernodle. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Vandal Alert: Moscow PD investigating a homicide on King Rd. near campus. Suspect is not known at this time. Stay away from the area and shelter in place.

It is Nov. 13, and that text is the start of a surreal day for me and every other student at the University of Idaho, a quiet campus in the small city of Moscow.

I am puzzled, trying to make sense of the words on my screen.

“Did they really mean ‘homicide?’ As in, murder? Someone killing someone else?”

My mind races.

My boyfriend, Conner, receives a phone call from his dad in Boise. He’s heard the news already and wants to make sure his son is safe.

“Wow, I guess people outside of Moscow already know what happened,” I think.

As the hours pass, the fragile bubble I feel around our town pops.

Moscow police continues to investigate the death of four people near campus. They indicate there is no ongoing threat. More information available soon via email.

“Four? What do you mean, four? That’s impossible,” I think.

Questions swirl in my mind.

“How did this happen?”

“Why would someone do this?”

“Am I safe?”

The last question feels foreign. How can I possibly be asking myself this?

Anyone who has lived in Moscow knows that parents dream of sending their kids to this community. For so many families, UI is far enough away to meet a student’s need for independence, but close enough for a weekend trip home without too much trouble. Parents drop their kids off at their dorm, teary at their new empty-nester status, but relieved that they will be home for Thanksgiving.

Emails, emails, emails.

Postponed. Canceled. Tragedy. Loss of these young lives. More to come. Hang in there. Stay safe.

As a journalist and a UI journalism student, my friends, former colleagues and familiar alums have been at the forefront of local and state coverage for this case. I’ve seen friends lose sleep, and friendly faces deluged in endless Twitter threads and Facebook comments, fighting misinformation or careless speculation, ensuring that the most trusted and accurate – although heartbreaking – coverage comes from home. I’ve seen borrowed headlines on Twitter posts from national and international outlets. I cried the first and only time I sought out broadcast coverage on my television.

I am frustrated. Maddened by the cruelty and disregard for human life this person (or these people) displayed. Anxious from the lack of critical information, and the seemingly endless days with few to no updates. Anxious for my safety, as a lack of suspect and a lack of threat do not align. Saddened and heartbroken for these families, these friends, and all of those who were close to Xana Kernodle, Ethan Chapin, Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves.

Xana was in my consumer behavior marketing class, and Kaylee was in my friend’s sorority. Ethan shared a class with my roommate, and both Xana and Madison worked as servers at Mad Greek, a popular restaurant in Moscow. My parents swear that Xana waited on us the last time we ate there. Despite all of this, I don’t pretend to have known them. But UI is a small campus, and this touches all of us. Every student.

How safe I feel has been an ever-swinging pendulum. From feeling nearly no threat in the first 24 hours, to nearly going home completely, to long, emotional phone calls with my parents and tough conversations with Conner on what to do in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, my feelings of security have been rattled.

In some ways, I don’t believe I will ever view Moscow in the same light.

Is it still the quiet, safe, small town it was before?

Where can I walk?

When can I be alone?

How much do I worry about the darkness that now visits at 4 p.m.?

Pepper spray isn’t exactly the kind of thoughtful roommate gift you think you need until it’s attached to your key chain, weighing you down with the truth of your new reality.

I’m back on campus after this new reality made me stay away for three weeks. I’ve thrown myself into my remaining assignments, my job as editor of Blot, UI’s student magazine, my internship responsibilities and the small hope that normalcy can return sooner rather than later.

I am still an Idaho Vandal. We are “Brave and Bold,” according to our university’s motto. For the past few weeks, I haven’t felt that way.

Katarina Hockema, of Homer, Alaska, is a senior journalism student at the University of Idaho and editor of The Blot, the student-run magazine.

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