Students in the School of Business at Northern Illinois University are holding what they call their “Golden Heart Celebration” Monday. The ceremony honors two of their own who were killed in an office shooting in Aurora February 15 -- senior Trevor Wehner and alumnus Clay Parks. It’s also Wehner’s Golden Birthday: he would have been 22 on April 22.
We start in a noisy ballroom at NIU. It’s Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day, or “poster day,” an end-of-semester showcase for student projects. And that’s where students in Professor Mahesh Subramony’s Management 460 class showed how they used their HR skills to cope with the worst they can expect in their profession.
Kalie Tazbier points to the poster featuring their work, “Sensemaking During an Experiential Learning Project.” She’s one of seven students in the advanced HR class. It’s usually a free-form class where students work together to consult with companies and create human resource management strategies. This semester, it’s different.
“So we started off as seven students,” said Yousef Judeh, “and right away we started an inside joke.” They dubbed themselves The Seven Dwarves – and as Judeh pointed out, that makes Professor Subramony Snow White.
“It was kind of a first symbol of how we were as a family and how we kind of came together so quick,” Judeh said. “And it's still kind of something that we like to relate ourselves back to. You know, we're still the seven dwarves, and we're still seven of us together.”
The Seven Dwarves were only about a month into the semester when the unthinkable happened. One of them, Trevor Wehner, was shot and killed on the first day of his internship. He was working with NIU graduate Clay Parks, who was HR director at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora. The two were killed, along with three others, by an employee who was being fired.
It happened on a Friday. The class didn’t meet again until Tuesday. Judeh says the weekend was painful, and they were ready to reunite. They had ribbons honoring Trevor and Clay, they brought yellow roses to symbolize friendship, and there were counselors waiting for them.
“We all walked in together,” Tazbier remembered with a broad smile. “We waited at the top of the stairs for each other, hugged all of our professors as we came inside, and actually placed those yellow roses on Trevor’s spot, really signifying that, you know, you're still with us, we love you, you're a friend, we miss you. And that whole entire class was just about coping with it, talking about it.” She paused, then quietly continued, “And sharing stories, which was really nice, as well. So it's a really memorable moment we had.”
Judeh agreed, saying that he felt safe with the people who knew exactly what he was going through. And he wanted the moment to last. Tazbier says it was like everything was put on hold for two weeks. “These projects that we started the semester off with were no longer even in our line of vision. We just really dropped everything and focused on rebuilding as a group, coping and healing. And also, you know, carrying on those legacies for Trevor and Clay.”
You can’t stick with the syllabus in this case. As their professor, Mahesh Subramony says his rational side had to take a back seat to his emotional side.
“I've tried to always be flexible and adaptable, in order to get students to learn and grow, he said. “This has been a very different kind of an opportunity where I had to sort of put on my big boy trousers, and then figure out as this is unraveling, this entire semester was unraveling in front of me and your lives were sort of being so dramatically impacted. I had to think about what to do and sort of lay the tracks as I was driving the locomotive over it. And so it was a process of learning for me.”
And the process began with putting their feelings about Trevor Wehner down on paper. Yousef Judeh says there was one point everyone made: what Trevor said the last time they saw him. They were role-playing in class and were asked how they would know when they were successful.
“And Trevor right away answered that once everyone remembers his name,” said Judeh, “and remembers him is how he knows that he has been successful. And really, that was the last moment that we kind of really shared with Trevor. That was our last class right before the event. And it really sunk into us.”
Now they needed to find a better way for people to remember Trevor’s name. Kalie Tazbier said they came up with the idea of endowing a scholarship called The Golden Heart, “in honor of Trevor and Clay, because they were both known to their family, friends and peers prior to passing as people who had hearts of gold.”
They’ll grant scholarships to students pursuing careers in human resources, using money they’ve raised so far – they hope to raise $50,000 so the scholarship fund can be self-sustaining. The Seven Dwarves leave another legacy -- the research they put into this process.
“And one thing that we think is the most important about what we have been doing,” said Tazbier, “is within life, school, business, work, everything, they teach you how to make decisions, but they don't teach you how to make sense of something that catastrophically happens to you. Still, people expect you to still go on with life and the normal things that you were supposed to, but it's really hard to do so. So this has really taught us how to cope with that and to deal with it.”
The students concluded that the role of a leader is to help people make sense of catastrophes and foster resilience. Friendships are the key to survival. And they would never forget their seventh team member, Trevor Wehner.
“What Trevor really meant for me was really like one of the first people I really got to know at NIU and someone that I can always relate to, and someone that always had my back,” said Judeh. “The last time we all had with him. It's like, I always wish that ended in a different way.” He stopped. Then continued, trailing off into a whisper, “You know, him telling us that if we can remember him and you never get to tell someone how much you really cared about them when they left. So…I miss him.”
And with that, Yousef Judeh’s colleagues pulled in close to him. They have his back.
"The Seven Dwarves" are Yousef Judeh, Jessica Pendleton, Abby Roemer, Kalie Tazbier, Kelli Tyler, Nicole Walczak, and Trevor Wehner.
Contributions can be made through the NIU Foundation by specifying "Golden Heart Scholarship."