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Va. Tech professor visits ETSU, says tragedy 'can happen anywhere'

SAM WATSON • Apr 21, 2007 at 12:42 PM

JOHNSON CITY - As classes resume at Virginia Tech on Monday, psychologist E. Scott Geller will face hundreds of students and a campus that will never be the same following a tragedy that he hopes was a nationwide wake-up call.

"How could it ever be the same?" Geller said of his institution Friday during a visit to East Tennessee State University. "I don't think this country will ever be the same. This country just experienced something that could happen to them.

"We walk around saying, ‘It could never happen to me.' Well, you saw it happen at Virginia Tech. It can happen anywhere, and I think that's a wake-up call. I just hope we can keep the wake-up call alive."

Geller was at ETSU's Brown Hall auditorium to deliver the ETSU psychology department's annual Hayward Award Talk. His lecture was titled "Lessons Learned from 37 Years of Intervention Research," a subject that took on increased significance in the wake of the massacre that took 33 lives.

An alumni distinguished professor at the Blacksburg campus, Geller called for society to adopt his "actively caring" approach to safety, specifically to intervene with disenfranchised personalities, including college courses designed to teach students to recognize and help people in need.

"How do we get people looking out for each other in a more interdependent instead of an independent way?" Geller said. "We're all in this together. How can we get a community spirit, rather than this independent perspective?

"You know, ‘I've got my cell phone, and I've got my e-mail.' That's life for people these days. We need to change that, and we need to reach out to each other and to work together in a community spirit."

He applied his thoughts to Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman who attacked his school on Monday.

"Look at the killer at Virginia Tech. He had so many signals," Geller said. "He never talked to anybody. Someone who is really into themselves and does not have a support network, they're in trouble. I don't care what your problem is, social support is critical. This guy had none. That's a signal."

Geller said Cho displayed other signals in the way he talked and wrote.

"An actively caring spirit - an actively caring communication could turn that around," Geller said. "We have to teach people to be caring - how to be a better listener, how to listen with empathy. Put yourself in the other person's shoes rather than your perspective. That's not easy."

Geller was not on the Virginia Tech campus when the gunman struck. He was heading to work that day when officials instructed him to stay home. His first reaction?

"Shock. What I heard was one (dead). Then, it went from one to 20," he said. "It blew me away. Shock and then anger and then sadness. Now, it's absolutely emotional. Now, it's what do we do about it?"

The professor expressed thanks for the outpouring of support Virginia Tech had received from around the country, including what he saw on Friday at ETSU.

"I looked at out in the audience and there were tears," Geller said. "There were a lot of maroon shirts out there. People are really paying attention. On my trip down here, there were two road signs that said, ‘Drive safely in honor of Virginia Tech.'

"We're all getting e-mails. I'm getting so many e-mails I can't keep up with it, but that's good news."

Geller's ETSU faculty host, Dr. Chris Dula, an assistant psychology professor, studied under Geller at Virginia Tech while pursuing his doctorate, and Lisa Stoner, a lab assistant in ETSU's Sundquist Center of Excellence for Paleontological Research, worked as Geller's research assistant during her undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech.

"It's very nice to be able to connect with him and actually with the whole Hokie family," Stoner said. "We've gotten a lot of support. I've been trying to wear my Virginia Tech sweatshirt and colors. Strangers have come up to say ‘we're sorry, please accept our sympathy.'"

Stoner expected Virginia Tech's homecoming to take on added meaning next fall.

"I'm going to try to get back. I think there will be a lot of folks who do that," Stoner said. "I think the students, the alumni and everybody are pulling together to support the school."

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