Most of you who know me know I am based in Brussels. I had a very busy day planned yesterday, and got to my office at the university in the very center of town rather early, so I could get some writing in before teaching my 11am Foreign Trade class. About quarter past eight, I went to see a colleague who normally comes in fairly early, and she said to me — it’s awful! And then I saw what had happened at our airport. I went back to my office, and sent a DM to my friends in social media at Brussels Airport, wishing them strength and sending support.
And then saw a Tweet from a former student, Evan Lamos, that he was in the metro, his ears popped and the metro stopped suddenly. And then I started hearing about what happened in our metro. Evan’s pictures and interview were on many of the major channels and news senders.
I then heard a commotion in our hallway, and one of my colleagues had just come from the central station (2 min walk from our place) and was a bit hysterical about the security and the lock down of the station. And then I heard about the transportation shut down.
And then all of our phones rang at the same time, which never happens. The university had pushed an urgent message to us and to the students to stay inside and to make sure we carried our uni ID with us. And our Dean came down the hall telling us classes were cancelled, and we need to go back to our offices (and get back to work!).
But two of us were scheduled to teach, and we asked the question if we could go across the street to the classroom building and see if students were there, and if we could help them understand the situation and answer questions. We were allowed to do so, and I came to the classrooms to find most 9am classes had stopped lecture and were watching live streaming of the major news channel.
For my 11am class, only one student (out of 98) showed up, since she was already on campus. I talked to her about her assignment (which was due at 5pm), and since she could not go home, brought her back to my offices, gave her a place to work, better WiFi and let her borrow my office landline to call her grandma and tell her she was okay. The mobile network was fairly challenged by this time! She told me where she was from / where she lived, and I made arrangements with colleagues on the next floor down who had a car and lived in the same area to get her home later.
Because in Belgium, it is all about networking. Before I knew it, several colleagues had come by (it is normal I drive to the uni when I come in, not normal for my colleagues) asking if I still had a seat in my car for the ride home. Most wanted to leave ASAP, but I had meetings most of the afternoon. Most of those got cancelled, and I left with a full vehicle at 4pm (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride then started, I had four babbling guests and they have never driven with a Californian before 😉 ).
From about 11:30 onward, I started receiving mails, texts, tweets, etc. from folks around the world asking if I was safe and okay. Yes, I do travel a lot and yes, Brussels Airport is my home port and Twitter friend, so I do take lots of airport shots in my Twitter stream. I have the utmost respect for the crisis communication from the airport team yesterday, and have said as much openly on Twitter yesterday as well.
A few things struck me about yesterday.
- The faculty and the parents of the students were a lot more unnerved about the events in Brussels than the students were. The students were only wondering if their midterm exams on Wed would be cancelled, and did they have to study anyway?
- When push comes to shove, we know how to communicate. Both formal and informal communication platforms worked well, and we arranged for transport and buses for the students and the staff.
- People care about people, whether it be first responders, people offering rides or places to stay, or people just inquiring if you are okay.
- This is not about religion, nationality, patriotism, belief structures — it is about compassion, understanding, cooperation.
Today the campus is shut, not out of fear, but because of the logistics of transport in Brussels today and for securing the facility even tighter for the coming days. And with technology enabled faculty and staff, we still are doing business albeit slightly more 21st century version today.
This unfortunately reminded me of when I was at Cornell, and we had a hostage situation in our dormitory, which made the national and international news. Surprising after all these years that memory came back for me. Similar kind of panic due to fear and miscommunication, with a news media aftermath and then an impact on how we lived/worked, with processes changed and doors now locked.
Life goes on.