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College-bound Uvalde students grapple with leaving a hometown in mourning

College-bound Uvalde students grapple with leaving a hometown in mourning” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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When Ariana Diaz’s top college pick notified her she had been accepted into the class of 2026, she quickly imagined having to explain to her New York University classmates what corner of smalltown Texas she came from.

But that was before her former Uvalde High School classmate shot and killed 19 children and two adults inside Robb Elementary School. Before her tiny town of 16,000 was thrust into the national spotlight for months and was forced to endure what she calls “the worst few months ever.”

High school graduation was postponed. Media swarmed the town.

“The traffic was so bad. We never have traffic issues here,” recalled Diaz, 18, as she prepared to leave for Manhattan’s West Village.

Overnight, the last summer she was meant to spend with friends before leaving town to start a new chapter elsewhere was shrouded with feelings of grief and helplessness.

“I didn’t know what to do. It was a crazy feeling, going around and asking if they needed volunteers anywhere,” she said.

Three months later, as Diaz prepares to move into her NYU dorm room this weekend, she’s now bracing herself for how the tragedy in her town will follow her throughout the fall.

Her best friend, Jaime Cruz, 18, who started his freshman year at the University of Houston this week, says he dreads others’ reactions, that people will always link him with the shooting.

“When I say I’m from Uvalde, they’re gonna know exactly where that is, know exactly what happened and, like, instantly associate one and one together,” he said.

Students leaving home for college often experience a flood of emotions: apprehension, excitement and anxiety. But for college-bound students from Uvalde, like Diaz and Cruz, there’s the weight of this summer when they experienced both searing grief and fear, but also excitement and relief.

There’s the guilt they feel about how they won’t be there for younger siblings who are afraid of returning to school this fall. There’s the fear of how emotions could bubble up in a new environment without friends and family beside them who understand what they’re going through. There’s also the apprehension about how people might react upon hearing they’re from Uvalde. But there’s also excitement for a new experience and relief that every time they turn a corner they don’t see a reminder of the shooting.

“It’s just going to be a little bit more room to breathe in a way,” Cruz said. “But at the same time, I don’t think we’re ever gonna forget. No matter where we are, what time zone, what city we’re in, I don’t think we’re ever just going to forget the 21 people.”

Struggles to leave Uvalde

Ariana Diaz in Luigi’s Italian Restaurant in Uvalde, where she and her family gathered for a post-graduation celebration on June 24, 2022.
Ariana Diaz at Luigi’s Italian Restaurant in Uvalde, where she and her family gathered for a post-graduation celebration on June 24. Credit: Kylie Cooper/The Texas Tribune

Right after the May 24 shooting, Diaz said she didn’t want to leave her family or her town. Cruz said all the conversations ceased among their friends about their new schools, their dorm rooms and meeting new people.

“All of us felt that iffyness,” Cruz said. “Is it OK to even be excited to move somewhere at the same time that your community is going through something?”

In Uvalde, leaving town after high school graduation is not that common. A little more than half of Uvalde public school graduates each year directly enroll in a two- or four-year college after high school, with a majority attending the local community college or the University of Texas at San Antonio.

In 2021, just 17% directly enrolled in a four-year university, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Diaz said her high school doesn’t aggressively push students to apply for college, but she has lots of family who left Texas for college and she has dreamed of living in New York since she was a child. Plus, she wanted to be a role model for future students.

“[For] the kids that are going to be seniors after me: It is possible to leave and go to the city you’ve always wanted to live in and go to college,” she said.

In Uvalde, it is impossible not to know someone impacted by the tragedy. Diaz’ father, Eulalio Diaz, Jr., is one of Uvalde County’s justices of the peace, a government official whose job requires him to identify the dead in this town 80 miles west of San Antonio. It was her father who was called to identify the 21 killed last May.

“I can’t even imagine what he had to see in there,” Diaz said. “But I’m just very proud of him.”

Diaz said she remembers on the day of the shooting there were rumors flying around town that other schools were also being targeted. As her mother went to pick up her brother from the junior high school, he heard an untrue rumor that a shooter was at his school and begged his mom not to come and possibly put herself in danger.

“He was so worried and so scared,” Diaz said, choking back tears. “I feel so bad that all of these kids are so scared to go back to school. I’m scared. I don’t like the idea of leaving my family to go out of state so far right after this … I do know I’m just a call away and just a flight away. But it’s still difficult having to come to terms with the fact that you’re not going to be here, present for your family.”

Diaz finds herself still processing that she actually knew the shooter and had a class with him her sophomore year before he dropped out of school, one detail she’s not sure she’s ready to tell people who inevitably ask about the experience throughout her first year of college.

“It almost makes me nauseous,” she said.

Still, there are signs that she’ll have a support system when she arrives in New York. Her future roommate has already reached out and said she was open to being a listening ear if Diaz needed to talk. While she occasionally gets pangs of guilt that she has the opportunity to even leave Uvalde, Diaz is trying to focus on the future. “I am ready to get my education and see what’s next for me.” she said.

Ariana Diaz, a Uvalde High School graduate, is photographed in New York City, NY on August 24, 2022. Diaz left Uvalde to start college at New York University.
Uvalde High School graduate Ariana Diaz in New York City on Wednesday. She’ll move into her dorm this weekend as she prepares to start her freshman year at NYU. Credit: Alex Kent for The Texas Tribune

Worries about what the future holds

Cruz isn’t going as far away as Diaz for college, but Houston still feels like a different world from Uvalde. He is the first in his family to attend college. Even before the tragedy, he faced pushback from his parents who wanted him to attend school closer to home.

“It was more frightening, I guess, sending a child off to a city he’s never been to,” he said.

When the shooting occurred miles away from their homes, followed by shootings in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Highland Park, Illinois, it cemented his parents’ fear.

Cruz said he saw the worry in his mom’s face. But he said he has the same fears about his family staying in their small town. His mother works in the school system, and his younger brother will return this year. Cruz said his younger brother has especially struggled with returning to school, asking if he can stay home or do virtual school instead.

All of it makes Cruz feel guilty for leaving his town at this moment. That apprehension was slightly exacerbated when he visited UH for summer orientation two weeks after the shooting.

When he and his parents arrived at orientation, he told a woman at the check-in desk his name. As she started reading out his nametag, she stopped halfway through when she came to his hometown’s name.

“You heard like the stutter in her voice when she didn’t finish reading,” he said. “All throughout orientation, like having to meet people [who ask], ‘where are you from?’ I was like, ‘Oh, Uvalde.’ The blank stare you would get in everyone’s face. Or like instant apologies.”

Jaime Cruz, a Uvalde High School graduate, left Uvalde to start college at the University of Houston. He began his major in Strategic Communications the week of August 24, 2022.
Jaime Cruz, who graduated from Uvalde High School in June, on the University of Houston campus on Wednesday. He began his major in strategic communications this week. Credit: Briana Vargas for The Texas Tribune

He said people he didn’t know came up to him throughout orientation to offer support and resources if he needed help during the semester. While he appreciated the gesture, he knows it will take time to find people who he’ll trust and feel comfortable sharing when he might be struggling.

“I’m very frightened of like, OK, what if one day it gets to me and I need to cope, I need to talk to somebody? I know that first couple weeks, I don’t know if I might have someone to talk to,” Cruz said. “That part’s the scary part.”

Healing in a new space

Diaz and Cruz aren’t the first students to enter college processing the trauma from a mass shooting.

Jai Gillard always knew she wanted to leave Texas for college, but by the time she started applying to schools in 2020, she was adamant she wanted to leave for a fresh start.

One reason was she thought students in Texas would be more familiar with Santa Fe High School, where she survived the 2018 shooting during her freshman year that killed 10 people and wounded 13 others. Gillard survived the shooting by hiding in a storage closet in the art room next door to the one where the shooter first entered. A student who ended up hiding with her ultimately died from injuries.

“I feel like most people would know my story,” she told The Texas Tribune. “It’s not that I don’t want people to know my story. But I didn’t [want to] go in being labeled as that. … Going out of state, it’s … like reinventing yourself and not being defined by something.”

Gillard attends Harvard University, where she is about to enter her sophomore year. When she arrived last fall, it had been three years since the attack and she said few people automatically made the connection when she shared her high school, which made it easier.

She empathizes with the students from Uvalde who might have a harder time being anonymous, given that it’s only been three months since their town made international news.

“Going in, they could be closed off or maybe not want to talk to anybody because of the fear that people may define them as what they’ve been through and what their community experiences,” Gillard said. For them, she had some advice.

“As individuals, we have the power to create the narrative that we want,” she said. “But also set boundaries and have conversations with people that you need to have conversations with so that you can get the help that you need and make sure that you feel comfortable and safe at the school that they attend. I think that’s very important for them.”

Gillard said when she first arrived at Harvard, it was difficult at times for others to understand why she might act a certain way due to the trauma she was still processing. In class, she would always take a seat in the back of the room because that’s where she was in her art room when the shooting began and she credits her location with helping her survive. When a similar incident happens — like the school shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan during her first semester in college — she avoids watching the news.

She also was hesitant to share her story with others because she was afraid people would assume that’s why she got accepted to such a prestigious school.

“I knew that I still had work to do,” she said. “And I still had to do what was best for me. So I had to advocate for myself, even when people didn’t understand.”

But grief and healing do not happen in a straight line. Her return home from college this year was especially tough. It coincided with the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, where 10 people were killed and three others were injured. Then, the fourth anniversary of the shooting at her high school. And then the shooting in Uvalde. She said she now just associates May with these kinds of events, something she’ll have to prepare herself for each year as she continues to heal.

But she credits college for helping her process that trauma.

“Once you go to a new place, it doesn’t really have — if you want to use teen slang — that vibe,” she said. “[Y]ou’re surrounded by something other than maybe a school or things that remind you of what you lost or what you’ve been through that really traumatized you. The healing process … it was sped up exponentially because I moved away.”

Turning trauma into advocacy

Ultimately, both Diaz and Cruz are trying to see their ability to leave their small town for college as an opportunity to be advocates for those still there, for the families who lost loved ones and those who died three months ago this week. They both want to advocate for stricter gun control measures that they believe are necessary to prevent other towns from experiencing the same horrific event.

From left: Jaime Cruz and Ariana Diaz stand under a tree in the middle of the road in Uvalde on Aug. 18, 2022.
Jaime Cruz and Ariana Diaz in Uvalde on Aug. 18. “All of us felt that iffyness,” Cruz said of Uvalde’s graduating high schoolers. “Is it OK to even be excited to move somewhere at the same time that your community is going through something?” Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

They both marched for gun control in Uvalde weeks after the shooting. Diaz said she was overwhelmed by the large turnout, given that she had attended a Black Lives Matter protest in her town in 2020 that was sparsely attended.

Gillard, who wants to major in psychology, has also started to speak publicly about mental health awareness, something she became intimately involved in as a way to process her trauma and find meaning in her survival. She’ll give a talk this upcoming semester at Harvard’s Institute of Politics about her experience during and after the shooting.

As Diaz spends a few days in New York before moving into her dorm, she hopes the simple act of leaving can inspire those back home, too.

“It shows them that we’re still moving forward. And that even though this happened, we’re still struggling, we’re still working through these things,” Diaz said. “We can still do the things that are important to us and try to make the difference in those spaces.”

Cruz said it took him a few months to realize he could be doing similar things in Houston and potentially have an even bigger impact, which made leaving his family a little easier to process.

“It helps,” he said. “Not the guiltiness, but more like it makes the moving feel a little better.”

Cruz moved into his dorm in Houston last weekend with the help of his parents and two brothers.

It rained that day, which Cruz said he knows is normal in the Bayou City. But he also took it as a sign.

“I like to think that the rain was symbolizing a new beginning.”

Disclosure: University of Texas at San Antonio and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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