A year ago Sunday night, UND President Charles Kupchella stood inside the Gamma Phi Beta sorority house not knowing one of his own students and his university were about to be thrust into the white-hot spotlight of national interest for all the wrong reasons.
At the time, he and everyone else in the room had only one thing on their minds: Find Dru.
Kupchella and his wife, Adele, along with University Police Chief Duane Czapiewski, Lillian Elsinga, dean of students office, Eric Mansager, school counseling center, Cassie Gerhardt, coordinator of campus Greek Life and Erinn Haskstol, sorority adviser, were called to the house after 22-year-old Dru Sjodin vanished a day earlier after leaving the Columbia Mall.
It's not atypical to see such an outpouring of support from UND leaders. For 20 years, the school's Crisis Team has been reacting similarly as situations arise.
But Kupchella said there were signs that night that something terrible had happened. Many in the room knew that Sjodin hadn't reported for work at the El Roco night club, and about an abruptly silenced cell-phone call to Sjodin's boyfriend, Chris Lang, after Sjodin inexplicably blurts out "Okay, okay," and a second cell-phone call from Sjodin with no words. They're all details that the public would learn over the next several days.
"None of us knew for sure what had happened," Kupchella said. "We all feared the worst, so we offered what ever solace we could."
Elsinga remembers the strength of the sorority members that night, and how they pulled together for their lost sister.
"They had already been sending fliers around the campus and as far away as Crookston, ... only a few hours after she was missing," Elsinga said.
"It was an overwhelmingly solemn mood that night, but it was a mood that 'we are all going to find Dru, and we all pray for her recovery.'"
Safe and safer
UND officials are quick to stress that their school is safe and below the national average when it comes to campus crime. They also remind that what happened to Sjodin, a graphic arts major from Pequot Lakes, Minn., happened off campus.
But Chief Czapiewski said that some changes have taken place on campus over the past year as a direct result of Sjodin's abduction and murder.
He said there now are more emergency telephones on campus and the school now emphasizes more than ever its on-campus shuttle bus service, Safe Ride program and 24-hour police escort service.
He said the extra advertising seems to be paying off. Shuttle bus ridership on campus in September 2003, before Sjodin disappeared, was about 10,000 students. This past September, ridership was up 63 percent to 27,0000 students.
There also has been a considerable up-tick in usage of UND's Safe Ride service, which sends 15-passenger vans on demand to pick up and transport people during evening and early morning hours.
Figures supplied by UND's Transportation Department show a 21 percent increase in usage for the Safe Ride service so far this year. Also, last year, average monthly ridership for Safe Ride increased 22 percent, or 244 riders, in the months after Sjodin's abduction compared with before.
However, Kupchella says, some things haven't changed. He still sees students not taking proper precautions on campus when venturing out alone after hours.
"I just have to shake my head, thinking to myself 'you ought not be alone," he said.
Czapiewski said some people don't want to be victims of fear.
"People just feel very strongly about their independence," he said. "They want to come and go as they please. And that's fine."
Czapiewski said that staff members within his own department still have a hard time dealing with the "emotional roller coaster ride" that started a year ago.
"I'm a little uncomfortable with all this one-year-later notoriety," he said. "It just opens up those old wounds and pain that they have."
Amanda Hvidsten, a UND alumna, who now works on campus with UND's alumni and foundation office, said she still sees trees and houses on campus with the pink ribbons that became a symbol of the community's adoration for Sjodin. She said it shows that all the attention paid to her search and memory was "more than a fad."
Hvidsten, a former UND student and sorority member, said she identified with Sjodin, making the ordeal even more personal.
"Her profile fit mine ... it could have been me," Hvidsten said.
Christen Anderson, a member of UND's Alpha Chi Omega sorority, said the Greek community on campus has come together more in the past year.
She said there were more sorority and fraternity members than ever on this year's "lighting tour," in which school officials walk the campus looking for safety problems and areas not well lit.
Anderson talks about the community's response, as well, such as at this year's "Take Back the Night" rally at UND, which this year featured Dru Sjodin's mother, Linda Walker. Most years attendance at the rally, used to bring awareness to domestic violence and other social problems, number fewer than the 300, but more than 1,200 showed up to hear Walker's speech.
"I don't really think it ever hit home for people that we can do something about (violence) until this happened," Anderson said. "It made it a lot more personal."
UND's student leaders say they're continually thinking up ways to make the campus safer. Sunday, UND's Student Senate passed a resolution setting aside $3,000 to purchase 3,500 small safety whistles to be issued to students for free.
Robert Haskins, the UND senator who authored the resolution, said the idea stemmed directly from what happened to Sjodin.
"We understand that it happened off campus, but if we can get (the whistles) into the hands of the general public and to students they can use them anywhere," Haskins said.
Kupchella still struggles to come up with words about the loss of Sjodin and what her family and the campus community has gone through in the past year.
"There is no way to describe it," he said. "You can only use standard words from a dictionary - dramatic - would be one. But they're really aren't words to describe the impact."
The national news cameras are gone, an alleged perpetrator is in jail and Sjodin now rests peacefully in the memory of her friends and family.
What remains is the trial of the man accused of causing Sjodin's death. Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr. currently awaits trial in a Fargo jail. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
A bit of frustration can be heard in Kupchella's voice when he talks about the accused and rights that have been afforded someone with his criminal track record.
"We still have a trial to go through and guilt and innocence to be considered," Kupchella said, " ... but how many chances do we give someone?
"We really need to reconsider the whole business of weighing the rights of the individual who may be convicted and who may even be guilty against the right of some unknowing victim."