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Growing Up in the Shadow of 9/11

Students at Rutgers today were just children when America was attacked 10 years ago, an event that informed their upbringing in untold ways. Recently, students taking part in a journalism class interviewed young adults their own age who lost a parent that day, an experience that served as a catharsis for everyone involved.
By Lara De Meo RC’97  Photography by Nick Romanenko

 

Five students who took part in the 9/11 Student Journalism Project, behind them rises the Freedom Tower
(Left to right) David Seamon, Travis Fedschun, Megan Schuster, Joe Kuchie, and Michelle Berman were among the 20 students who took part in 9/11 Student Journalism Project, offered through the School of Communication and Information in New Brunswick. Behind them rises the Freedom Tower (the black building), one of the two structures will replace the Twin Towers. To read about these students’ experiences interviewing survivors of the victims of 9/11, scroll below.

For a moment, 10-year-old Travis Fedschun was living a boy’s dream. After landing in Juneau, Alaska, on a family vacation, he got to sit in the cockpit of the 737 and wear the captain’s hat as he posed for a photo. The pilot even showed him all the controls. That was the summer of 1999. Now 23, Fedschun looks back on the glorious innocence of that day—from the part of his childhood that occurred before September 11, 2001—and says, “No one’s ever going to be able to do that again.”

With all that has been written about the September 11 attacks, it might seem like there is nothing more to say. But as Fedschun and the 19 others who participated in the Rutgers 9/11 Student Journalism Project have learned, there are many more stories to tell—and their generation is the perfect one to tell them. For the project, offered as a journalism course last spring and developed with the New Jersey Press Association, students interviewed young people who, like them, were still children in 2001—but had lost a parent in the attacks. They asked, what had happened to these children in the 10 years since?

The September 11 attacks “really affected these children’s lives, and in a lot of cases, you can’t even begin to imagine how it affected them until now as they open up for the first time,” says Ron Miskoff RC’69, GSN’06, who created the course. “The principle was that children of 9/11 victims might just say something to a student who is a contemporary that they wouldn’t say to an older journalist.”

The project grew from discussions between Miskoff, who is the associate director of the Journalism Research Institute at the School of Communication and Information in New Brunswick, and George White, then the executive director of the New Jersey Press Foundation. It was funded by a $50,000 New Jersey Press Foundation grant, part of which paid for equipment used by students to videotape interviews and photograph subjects. The multimedia material, and students’ written stories, was made available to New Jersey newspapers for possible publication on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Media interest in the project, however, was piqued several months before the anniversary—when Osama bin Laden was assassinated during the time that the course was being taught. CNN asked students to respond to the news through interviews and essays, which were published online. 

Because the Rutgers students were in middle school when the attacks happened, their raw memories were different from those who lived through the event as adults. So the syllabus included articles from that time, as well as books like The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11 (Riverhead, 2009), written by John J. Farmer, the dean of the Rutgers School of Law–Newark. In class, they revisited televised coverage and heard from guest speakers such as Thomas Franklin, the photographer for the Record newspaper who took the iconic photo of firefighters raising the flag at Ground Zero.

The newfound perspective gained from classes and readings, and the viewpoint of being close in age to the victims’ children, led to the students’ arriving at a new understanding of September 11. There were ancillary difficulties, such as a mother who remarried after losing her husband, only to have that marriage fail; the lasting effects of never having recovered a dead parent’s remains to bury; or, for those who were able to bury remains, the realization that a gravesite does not equal closure.

There were cases in which victims’ children were inspired to excel in something that would have made that parent proud. Danielle Gaglioti interviewed Matthew Picerno, who coped with the loss of his father by escaping to the basement to play drums. He and his brother, Anthony, a guitarist, started a band called the Jolly Rotten Skeletons, which now has a fan base in New Jersey and beyond. “He said that when things were hard, when they were sad, he and his brother would just go downstairs and jam, and they would forget about what their family was experiencing,” says Gaglioti. “I think that’s how they got so good.”

The project made a meaningful contribution to the public’s understanding of the still-rippling effects of a national tragedy, and it helped the victims’ families to better understand themselves. “I was the first person to interview them about 9/11,” says Megan Schuster of the three teenaged sisters she spoke with. “By the end of the interview, they learned a lot about one another, about how they felt over the past 10 years.” •

David SeamonDavid Seamon
SAS’11, SC&I’11
Age: 22
Hometown: New Brunswick, New Jersey
Major: journalism and media studies
Minor: Spanish
It wasn’t hard for Seamon to find something he had in common with Marisa and Eddie Allegretto; they attended the same Catholic high school in Edison, New Jersey, and share the bond of being “twentysomething in a post-9/11 world,” as Seamon puts it. Seamon says Marisa told him that although her grief led her to quit dancing as a child, it is now “almost the sole driving force” behind her choice to become a dance teacher as an adult. In thinking about his own coming of age, Seamon has no doubt that September 11 played a powerful role.
Megan SchusterMegan Schuster
SAS’12, SC&I’12
Age: 21
Hometown: Whitehouse Station, New Jersey
Majors: journalism and media studies, cultural anthropology
Schuster interviewed three teenaged sisters, one of whom attended the same middle school as she did on the day of the September 11 attacks. The common ground allowed Schuster to talk to them about the loss of their father “like my sister or my friend,” she says. In fact, Schuster vividly recalls the moment on the day of the attacks when her best friend was called away from lunch because her mother was there to pick her up. After school, Schuster called that friend to ask about her father, who by then had made it onto the ferry back to New Jersey.
Travis FedschunTravis Fedschun
SAS’11, SC&I’11
Age: 23
Hometown: Cedar Knolls, New Jersey
Major: journalism and media studies
Minor: political science
Kaila Starita was only 5 years old when her father was killed, but, as she told Fedschun, she was capable of sensing her mother’s fears about her family’s financial future. Her mother wasn’t working; her father had been the sole breadwinner. “Kaila did see how difficult it was for her mom, and how scared her mom was that they were going to lose their home,” Fedschun says. Fedschun can recall responding to his own mother’s palpable nerves in the months following the attacks.
Michelle BermanMichelle Berman
SAS’12, SC&I’12
Age: 21
Hometown: La Mirada, California
Majors: journalism and media studies, psychology
Steven Bauer, a 24-year-old law student at Seton Hall University, shocked Berman when he told her that she was the first nonfamily member he had spoken with about the loss of his father. “He just had no desire to let anybody else in,” Berman says. “The fact that we were within a few years of each other was a comfort zone.” When Bauer became emotional during the interview, it reminded Berman of how scared she had been on September 11 when her school was closed because the next target was suspected to be downtown Los Angeles, where her father worked.
 
Joseph KuchieJoseph Kuchie 
SAS’12, SC&I’12
Age: 20
Hometown: Woodbridge, New Jersey
Major: journalism and media studies
Minors: digital communication, criminology
Kuchie was apprehensive at the start of his interview with 19-year-old Kelly Larson. “I didn’t want to ask the wrong questions,” he says. He soon realized that she was extremely open to talking about her father. After a long healing process, Larson told him, she decided it was time to move on with her life because that is what he would have wanted. “She said that it was definitely life-changing because it made her a stronger person,” Kuchie says. The conversation helped Kuchie to grasp the sense of enormity of September 11 that had eluded him as a child.
Danielle GagliotiDanielle Gaglioti
SAS’11, SC&I’11
Age: 22
Hometown: Hopewell Junction, New York
Majors: journalism and media studies, political science
Gaglioti and her subject, Matthew Picerno, are the same age, and they’re both drummers. At first, Gaglioti’s inexperience as a journalist made her hesitant to ask him about his father’s death, so she approached it differently. “We talked about music,” she says. “An older journalist wouldn’t have been able to talk about music like we were talking.” Gaglioti was surprised when Picerno talked about his father without weeping—and said that he was grateful for the time he had with him. But she also knows from her own experience that children can react to tragedy in unexpected ways.