Since the April 16 tragedy, when 32 lives were lost, three Virginia Tech students have honored and celebrated the lives of the victims through the reading and presentation of their bios. The event, however, will not occur this year.

Colleen Thon, Class of 2014, started the project. She first became involved in the April 16 commemorative as the HokieBird. She attended a vigil on April 16, 2011, as the mascot. In the following years, she organized the reading of the biographies of the 32 victims.

“I started the event because I found that a lot of students who weren’t there that day, (myself included), sometimes misplaced the day of April 16th for a day to feel a sense of school spirit and unity without also remembering the victims themselves. I hated the fact that the shooter was more well known than the 32,” Thon wrote in an email to the Collegiate Times.

Moustapha Ouattara, a senior studying political science, took over the presentation in April of 2015, after hearing Thon’s presentation his freshman year.

I attended, really liked the way (Thon) did it and talked to her afterwards about taking it over because she was a senior at the time,” Ouattara said. “Ever since she left, after that, I’ve continued it for the past three years. This will be my third year, personally.”

From attending to his first time reading the bios, telling the stories of the 32 victims has been emotional for Ouattara, even though he did not know any of the individuals personally.

“It’s been quite the roller coaster … So, having gone to the first one, the way Colleen did it, I had never really explored any of the 32’s lives,” Ouattara said. “Just going through that, and understanding who they were even though you never met them, you felt a certain closeness to them … You really do feel a closeness when you’re reading the bios. It’s almost as if you knew them, that they were a part of you. You start to realize certain facts and tidbits about some of them that you see in yourself. It’s really sad …

“It’s tough. The very first time I did them, I couldn’t even get through all of them without having to stop and catch (my) breath and, you know, the sniffling starts … Once you see that in the audience, people are starting to tear up, and cry and dabbing their eyes, it makes you feel more at ease that you’re not the only one breaking down … These were human lives that once upon a time walked the campus that you’re walking now. Their lives were cut far too short.”

Ryan Plummer, an alumnus of Virginia Tech who is currently in the university’s master’s program in business analytics, has aided Ouattara in preparing for and in reading the bios of the victims for the past two years.

Unlike Ouattara, Plummer was in Blacksburg on April 16. He was getting his license and registration renewed a few blocks away, when a friend walked by and told him what was happening. He got to campus as soon as he could.

“I went straight to the building,” Plummer said. “I knew many people that had classes in that building and I think the last ambulance was just leaving when I got there. The only thing I remember is that was the first time I had seen a blood stain on the ground … There was just one giant spot on the sidewalk, they didn’t have the chance to block anything off, so everything was chaos … I had the picture (of the blood stain in) my phone for a while to remind me why I had the goals I had in life and with the military.”

The semester after the shooting, Plummer enlisted in the Marines. After he finished his enlistment, he came back to Virginia Tech and graduated in the spring of 2016.

“If I ever said I had a righteous fury in my life, it was that day. I promised myself that if anything like that ever happened again, I’d know how to stop it, because in that point in my life I don’t think I could have,” Plummer said.

Every year, planning the bio readings requires much coordination and preparation from both the administration and those leading the readings.

“It’s been tough to nail down a room every year we do it, so it started out the first year I did it in a small conference room in a residence hall, actually. And then it moved on. Last year, we did it in the GLC … and this year we have yet to nail down a spot,” Ouattara said. “But with all the events happening with the 10th anniversary, we don’t even know if we are going to have time to do it because we’ve been trying since last semester to work with administration to nail something down, but there’s just, either you get the runaround or they don’t even reply to emails. Who knows if it will happen this year, sadly.”

Plummer believes that the pushback came from the administration at one time, but things have changed with the switch from former President Steger to President Sands.

“When I got back, Moustapha told me that there had been some resistance from one of the previous presidents of Virginia Tech. They didn’t want to focus on the negatives of it. They thought that the shooting was a negative that would deter people, and the new president embraced it, saying it was a part of our history,” Plummer said. “4/16 showed how Virginia Tech is a family, and part of being a family is you never forget those that came before you.”

Despite Sands’ acceptance of the bio readings, resistance has existed since Ouattara and Plummer took over the project, and comes from more than just the administration.

“When I first started, there was a lot of pushback from people who … said you know, it’s been X amount of time you should just stop and let the memories fade away. It’s a bad image on the university, it affects admissions,” Ouattara said. “I don’t see it that way, I see it as, you know, these are lives that were cut short, and we’re remembering them, we are honoring them by doing this, it’s not because we want to sadden the day even more. It’s no different, I tell people all the time, than let’s say a Pearl Harbor or 9/11 and other unfortunate historical acts, but what we do on those days, we remember and we honor them, regardless of what the tragedy is, we have to realize that this tragedy will forever be a part of this university.”

It is unfortunate that due to these issues the event will not take place this year. However, Ouattara and Plummer believe that, yes, the April 16 shooting did occur, and, yes, it was a tragedy, but the lives of the victims should be celebrated and Virginia Tech is more than just this incident.

“There’s a lot of support for those who were affected by it,” Ouattara said. “Everyone comes together, and through a tragedy you have a sense of togetherness and community that supersedes even all the pain that comes from that.

“April is a month of giving back and living out the motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), and, yes, April 16 is a part of that, but there is so much more in terms of growth and personal relationships, academics, sports, to really find yourself as a student and as a future professional, than just saying this one event is going to define my university life.”

Although Thon, Plummer and Ouattara put a great deal of effort into this presentation and its research every year, they are not the focus of the event.

“It’s not about me, it’s not about Ryan, it’s not about Colleen — it’s about those 32,” Ouattara said.

Moustapha Ouattara speaks about what it is like to present the 32 biographies of the victims of April 16.

Moustapha Ouattara addresses the controversy of his event.