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Life at Virginia Tech a year later

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  • Virginia Tech continues to find itself under a global spotlight
  • Community service initiative, VT Engage, has logged 300,000 hours since shootings
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By Caleb Fleming
Special to CNN
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Caleb Fleming is a freshman at Virginia Tech and is a news reporter for the student newspaper, the Collegiate Times. CNNU is a feature that provides student perspectives on news and trends from colleges across the United States. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of CNN, its affiliates or the schools where the campus correspondents are based.

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A year later, Virginia Tech students say they have learned about themselves and their community.

BLACKSBURG, Virginia (CNN) -- One year after the worst school shooting in United States history, Virginia Tech students have discovered that while grief remains, rememberance and community can help bring comfort.

Though the effects of the shooting have been far reaching, few have been touched as directly as Derek O'Dell and Katelyn Carney.

The two were in their German class when they were injured by gunfire. Both say they learned valuable life lessons from the experience.

"I appreciate things a lot more, looking back and seeing how close to death I came," O'Dell said.

"I appreciate all the family and friends and community that have supported me through everything."

Carney said she calls her loved ones in the morning before class to make sure that all is well. "I've been trying to take my experiences, the things I've learned, to help me grow as a person," Carney said.

"I've learned that by the end of the day, no matter what happens to you, you know that there is nothing in the day that you can't handle with the help of your family, your friends and God."

Many students say there is a sense of family on campus now. After the shooting, the college and town of Blacksburg came together to memorialize the lives lost.

"It's a small town so it's easier for us to connect. We're basically our own city, so it's home. It makes us all connected and family in some ways," said Michael Macfarlan, a senior biology major.

Macfarlan was studying abroad in South Africa at the time of the tragedy where he was forced to rely mainly on the news for updates.

"My buddy said there had been an incident in the dorms," Macfarlan said. "All the Tech people decided to go to dinner together, and that's when we found out there was a mass murder. It was good for us to be together, to go through it. I remember sitting at the dinner table and people just leaving to talk to their friends."

Becky Wiggins, now a senior at Tech, was participating in a co-op work-study program in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the time of the tragedy. That night, Wiggins attended a candlelight vigil at the University of Virginia.

"It was incredibly difficult [being away]," Wiggins said. "I didn't have anyone to relate to for weeks. When I came back, it felt so good to see my friends and family and be able to hang out with them."

And students say they have a stronger sense of what it means to be a Hokie, the school mascot, embracing the school motto of "Ut Prosim," which means "that I may serve."

Among other projects, VT Engage, a campus-wide community service initiative was established following the shootings. They dedicated 300,000 service hours during the past year to the memory of the victims.

Rebekah Miller, a sophomore human nutrition, foods and exercise major, was in class at the time of the shooting. Though she says being a Tech student carries a heavy weight, Miller says she is hopeful about the future.

"When something like during April [the shooting] happens -- I know that it's a really strong community and nothing is going to tear it down," she said.

Miller said she feels "proud to be at Virginia Tech, no matter what happens."

A memorial with 32 stones representing 32 victims overlooks the campus Drillfield, where a similar makeshift memorial was originally constructed within days of the shooting. Each stone is etched with the name of a person killed in the shooting.

The stone dedicated to Leslie Sherman, a junior, is decorated with 21st birthday wishes. Ross Alameddine's shrine relays his favorite quote: "Honesty and straightforwardness in strangers is a rarity; Treasure those who truly exemplify these traits, because you may never again meet another who does."

In the center of the memorial it reads, "We will prevail ~ We are Virginia Tech."

The memorial is about 100 yards from Norris Hall, where mentally ill student Seung-Hui Cho killed himself and most of his victims on April 16, 2007. Norris Hall will soon become a Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.

Though the mourning continues, the Tech community is finding its way in the aftermath, refusing to accept the tragedy as its single defining moment. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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