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Growing up in the shadow of the day

Choosing a concentration


Growing up in the shadow of the day

Jahnavi Rao.

National & World Affairs

Growing up in the shadow of the day

“For me and my peers, we’ve grown up in this post-9/11 world where something has always felt like it was missing,” said Jahnavi Rao ’22.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Many were not even born yet, but all their lives were touched

In six minutes on Sept. 11, 2001, Caitlin Beirne’s life changed forever — even before she had been born.

“My mom was pregnant with me during 9/11, and my father, who was an Air Force pilot for 23 years, was flying an 8 a.m. commercial shuttle from Boston to La Guardia that day,” said Beirne, a sophomore from Long Island, N.Y., who lives in Dunster House. “He turned around the World Trade Center towers about six minutes before the first tower was hit.” Soon he would be deployed to the Middle East for six years.

Beirne and many of her Harvard College classmates are among the nearly quarter of the American population who were either not alive or are too young to remember the day or how different a place the world was before 9/11. They grew up with elements of the fallout as part of their daily lives: long-term military engagements in the Middle East, expanded security measures everywhere, and conspiracy theories of a staged catastrophe or an inside job.

Beirne’s life was marked by the terrorist attacks in part because of her father’s subsequent absence and then by seeing her older brother join a ROTC program in college — all of which led her to join Air Force ROTC at MIT with plans to become a pilot after graduation.

As she was growing up, she forged community connections to local first responders, including police officers and firefighters whose efforts she knew saved lives, sometimes at a cost.

Beirne, a Theater, Dance & Media concentrator, has been giving back to local first responder groups for years. She has sung at 9/11 memorial events regularly since seventh grade, including those put on by the FeelGood Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for federal legislation to provide benefits to veterans and first responders suffering from health problems incurred during and after 9/11 operations.

“Being able to sing for and speak with people who did lose loved ones or were themselves first responders has just given me a whole new perspective that I didn’t have before,” said Beirne.

Caitlin Beirne.
Young Caitlin Beirne and her father.

Caitlin Beirne ’24 outside Dunster House. A young Caitlin Beirne with her father in the cockpit of a plane. Her father was deployed to the Middle East following 9/11.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer and courtesy of Caitlin Beirne

Born a few months after 9/11, Zoree Jones ’24 grew up near Washington, D.C., in Virginia, and experienced an “inflection point” in high school when she met local first responders at a 9/11 memorial event.

“I realized that these first responders reflected the community of folks who were so instrumental on that day,” Jones said. “I was moved to remember the courage of people who ran into the buildings while others ran out.”

Zoree Jones.

Zoree Jones ’24 says the impact of 9/11 can be seen in her interest in public service and politics.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Her proximity to the Capitol’s halls of government also gave her a unique vantage point on how civic organizations and governments were shaped by the attack even as she embarked on her own public service journey.

“A lot of my interest in public service, politics, and governance comes from growing up in the area and my understanding of what the key considerations of public actors and government officials should be,” said Jones, a sociology concentrator, who recalled learning about how the Department of Homeland Security was created in response to 9/11. “I learned a lot about how some of those choices and duty to protect citizens probably came from that moment when there was so much vulnerability and struggle.”

In addition to new government departments and enhanced military infrastructure, young people grew up experiencing more everyday instances of the post-9/11 “new normal,” said Michael Cheng ’22.

“If you’re growing up with security measures at airports and large public spaces, and there are some people around who are afraid of tall buildings, it feels normal, like it’s always been this way,” said Cheng, who lives in Quincy House. “It’s kind of strange to live that reality and also know that it hasn’t been like this for that long.”

Michael Cheng.

“It feels like the aftermath of 9/11 was one of the last times that the United States was pretty united around some kind of national purpose ... ,” said Michael Cheng ’22.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Cheng, who grew up in Pennsylvania and is pursuing a joint concentration in history and mathematics and a concurrent fourth-year master’s degree in computer science, sees value in looking back at 9/11 as part of the long, not-so-linear arc of recent U.S. history.

“It feels like the aftermath of 9/11 was one of the last times that the United States was pretty united around some kind of national purpose, even with the things that we could have handled much better as a country, and the mistakes that were made,” he said. “But at the same time, it feels like we’ve gone down a spiral of division, so it’s not like a devastating event always leads a march toward progress. It can move forward and backward, and as a society we have to try to find meaning in the aftermath.”

For Will Dey ’23, commemorating 9/11 every year at school in Austin, Texas, was an exercise in finding meaning, prompted by one weighty refrain: “Never forget.”

“It felt like the nation was trying to grapple with something that they could never really get closure on, and there was a need to avenge the attack by getting back at something, or someone, tangible,” said Dey, who lives in Dunster House.

As a South Asian person born to immigrant parents, Dey often felt targeted by that response.

“Because my parents are Bengali immigrants from India, the effects [of 9/11] were felt differently in my family,” said Dey. “My parents had to explain how being brown was associated with terrorism, and we were often ‘randomly’ checked at airport security. All of that was hard to put together as a kid, because there was a lot of stigma against brown people.”

Will Dey.

“Because my parents are Bengali immigrants from India, the effects [of 9/11] were felt differently in my family,” said Will Dey ’23.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Dey, a joint concentrator in physics and computer science, started reading more about 9/11 to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of the events and their aftermath, and to form opinions rooted in education instead of fear of the unknown.

“In school, we were just taught that we were at war with a big unseen enemy, and it was always shrouded in mystery,” said Dey. “I think that has had some far-reaching effects, which can be felt today.”

The emotional weight of the attack and its aftermath affected Jahnavi Rao ’22 in an unexpected way: through musical theater. Rao saw the Broadway musical “Come From Away,” inspired by the true story of the small town of Gander, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which took in hundreds of stranded passengers whose planes were diverted and grounded on Sept. 11.

“It felt so poignant for me, even though I was born in 2000,” said Rao, a government concentrator from Berwyn, Penn. “For me and my peers, we’ve grown up in this post-9/11 world where something has always felt like it was missing.”

Rao, whose family is from southern India, noted that 20 years after the attacks, more Americans seem to understand the effects of prejudice related to assaults on Muslims, South Asians, and Middle Eastern people, as well as the trauma young people have faced growing up with school shootings and other forms of domestic terrorism.

“I want to work in public service and understanding events in the past is really critical to that,” she said. “I’m inspired by the resilience of the American people after 9/11, and it really showed me that there are ways for all Americans to come together and do really great things to support each other. We can take a lot of pride in that and learn a lot of lessons from it.”


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