Julia Van Volkenburg

Julia Van Volkenburg was 22 and had just begun her master's program at the University of Virginia when terrorists attacked on 9/11.

FAIRMONT — The excitement of starting her master’s degree turned to worry when Julia Van Volkenburg heard the news of the attack on the Twin Towers.

At age 22, Van Volkenburg had just begun studying speech language pathology at the University of Virginia, and she wanted to attend the upcoming football game.

She walked to the football stadium that Tuesday to pick up tickets for Thursday’s game against Penn State.

“I was outside the stadium where you can buy tickets for a home game,” Van Volkenburg said, “and I saw a news alert that the first tower had been hit. I saw the plane hit. And they were replaying it.”

As with most Americans, Van Volkenburg thought the newscast was some sort of mistake. “I thought initially that the pilot must have gotten confused,” she said. “I didn’t think it could have been a terrorist attack.”

Within minutes, students all over UVA’s campus were panicked. “It was shock,” Van Volkenburg said. “Everywhere.”

“Then, we got news of the Pentagon,” she said. “It got worse and worse.”

Just over 100 miles away, the Pentagon was on fire. “Virginia was placed in a state of emergency,” Van Volkenburg said. “When the Pentagon was hit, the state of Virginia completely shut down.”

Regularly scheduled evening classes transformed into discussion groups about the attacks. Without any real information about what was happening, Van Volkenburg said there was a lot of fear. “And we were in Virginia, so close to Washington,” she said. “It was scary.”

The fear that consumed students and faculty was all-encompassing. “I had a friend — a classmate — whose father was a New York City police officer,” Van Volkenburg said. “We had cell phones, but she couldn’t get in touch with him. It was a busy signal over and over. She couldn’t reach him. I don’t know how she found out, but she learned later that he was OK. It was a very fearful time.”

By Thursday — two days after the attack — the Cavaliers’ football game against the Nittany Lions had been canceled. It was reported that this was the first time since JFK’s assassination that a Penn State football game had been canceled.

Upon completing her master’s at UVA, Van Volkenburg returned to Fairmont and began work as a speech language pathologist for Marion County Schools. She later completed her doctorate in curriculum and instruction at WVU. During last year’s pandemic, Van Volkenburg left her position with Marion County Schools to spend more time with her children, who are now 2 and 7.

Now, Van Volkenburg remembers finishing that first semester at UVA with a new sense of vulnerability. Americans had never experienced anything like 9/11, especially young people, who didn’t grow up during wartime.

“All of it was to foreign to my generation,” Van Volkenburg said. “I’ll never forget it.”

To reach Lori Riley, email lriley@timeswv.com.

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