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A student on how campus shootings have changed the college experience

It was a chilly Thursday evening in late November. While my fellow students chugged beers and cheap vodka at the nearby bars, I was huddled away in my natural habitat — the library at my school, the University of Florida.

As I crammed for an upcoming final exam, I periodically checked my phone to serve as a study break. I scrolled through Instagram, caught up on my Facebook notifications and checked my text messages from friends. Ah, procrastination at its finest.

Shortly after midnight, my phone vibrated in rapid succession, so I reluctantly picked it up, assuming I’d be reading a string of incomprehensible drunken text messages from a friend. But instead, my heart stopped and my mouth dropped to the floor as I read the message from a friend at Florida State University:

“Holy shit, there was just a shooting in the library.”

I ran to the nearest staircase to call her, my heart beating out of my chest as I thought of the dozens of high school friends who attended this school and could have possibly been involved in the incident. She reassured me that she and my other close friend were home safe and sound, but explained that she had been in that exact library just three hours before the shooting occurred. Emotions flooded my brain as I tried to wrap my head around this.

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That’s all it took for me to realize just how grave and serious the issue of college campus shootings is. What if my friend decided to drink a coffee and stay at the library for a few hours longer? Or what if the shooter decided to come to the library a few hours earlier? Could she have been one of the victims?

There has been a smattering of incidents like this on school campuses — Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Virginia Tech in 2007 and Oikos University in 2012, just to name a few. But when it happened at my rival school, Florida State University, it really struck a chord with me. This issue transcended the power of any football rivalry. These were college students just like me who were minding their own business at the library when someone opened fire. I can’t help but imagine: Which school is next? It truly pains me to think about the possibility of this happening at my seemingly picture-perfect school, let alone any school in general.

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In the wake of the shootings in Oregon, Texas and Arizona earlier this month, the main question that comes to mind is why? Why do these incidents keep happening?

Why have there been 23 shootings on college campuses in 2015 alone? Why would anyone do this?

Though I’ll never know exactly what could ever compel someone to commit such a cruel act, I know one thing is for sure: These days, I always have my guard up.

I grew up in a relatively sheltered environment, in a suburban, gated community where I never had to think twice about feeling safe. Having attended private school my whole life, I always just assumed that mass shootings weren’t a possibility because of my school’s religious teachings. But now that I’m living on my own and am enrolled in one of the largest public universities in the nation, I realize that safety is something I can no longer take for granted. As scary as it is to admit it, the truth is that these types of incidents can happen anywhere.

Whether I’m walking to my car from a late-night library session or leaving a meeting in an on-campus building, I’m constantly aware of my surroundings now. I find myself frequently glancing behind my back to make sure I’m not being followed, even in broad daylight. I’ve become a strong proponent of the buddy system, especially at night, and I no longer feel truly safe anymore.

My freshman year naiveté has flown out the window, only to be replaced with skepticism and anxiety about the plethora of “what ifs” that run through my head at night.

More: When kids ask about mass shootings, what can a mom say?

Though I’m not going to dive into the hot topic of gun control on college campuses, I’ll leave you with the following catchy adage, fellow college students: If you see something, say something. After all, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

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