UNLV cancels finals as shooting upends semester and campus grapples with traumatic stress

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 7, 2023 - A UNLV student is hugged by a campus worker, right, at the scene where three people died and one person was injured in a mass shooting at the UNLV campus. Photo taken on December 7, 2023. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A UNLV student is hugged by a campus worker, right, a day after the mass shooting on campus. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

This fall semester Abigale Hennings had finally hit a stride at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The pandemic had disrupted the 23-year-old’s education in 2020-21 when she went part time for a full academic year because virtual learning had become too difficult.

She returned to full-time classes in the fall of 2021 and, in recent months, was looking forward to finally graduating during a winter commencement ceremony Dec. 19. Then a gunman — an academic who had applied for a job at the university — opened fire in a building Wednesday, killing three faculty members and wounding a visiting professor, throwing the campus into a state of emergency and grief.

“It takes away the joy of all of us making it, ” said Hennings, a music major.

On Friday the university, acknowledging the trauma students and faculty have experienced, canceled on-campus, in-person finals. Instead, faculty and students have flexibility to decide how to end the semester.

Optional online finals or take-home projects can be taken to improve grades; otherwise students will earn a grade based on their work before Dec. 6, the day of the shooting. Students will also be given the opportunity to receive credit for their class without a grade.

“Your resilience amidst near insurmountable adversity continues to amaze me,” UNLV President Keith E. Whitfield said in a letter to the community. “In the short time since Wednesday’s incident, I’ve met with some of you to listen and to learn, and I acknowledge the pain, fear, and anxiety that many are experiencing right now. I feel it too.”

Graduation ceremonies will go on as scheduled Dec. 19 and 20.

“The milestone moment of commencement is the most special day on the university calendar, and it’s in difficult times like these that we can and should celebrate our graduates’ academic dreams fulfilled,” Whitfield said. Students who choose not to attend can participate in May 2024 ceremonies.

A student walks past police tape outside UNLV's Frank and Estella Beam Hall, where the shooting took place.
A student walks past police tape outside UNLV's Frank and Estella Beam Hall, where the shooting took place. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The news comes as a relief to many on campus.

The shooting occurred at the apex of academic stress during “study week” before finals. Students said they have been grappling with the trauma of the shooting — gunshots, sirens, frantic university texts to “RUN-HIDE-FIGHT” amid a massive convergence of law enforcement on campus. Many sheltered in place for hours behind barricaded classroom doors, sent messages to loved ones and were ultimately escorted to safety by police. Four people were hospitalized with panic attacks.

Read more: UNLV shooter had a list of targets, along with a 9-millimeter gun and extra ammo

Three students walk on a foot path among trees
Students walk on a deserted UNLV campus Thursday, a day after the shooting. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Some professors had already canceled exams or extended deadlines. Students had sent a letter to university leaders, asking them to cancel classes for the remainder of the semester and to move finals online or cancel them.

The letter urged the university “to show grace during this time, allowing for extensions on all assignments and attendance as no student should be forced back onto campus in the coming weeks.” A petition calling for the cancellation of classes also generated thousands of signatures.

Student David McCurdy, 20, said the shooting thrust the stress of exams — especially his dreaded chemistry final — into a new perspective. He can’t imagine studying.

“It just doesn’t seem that important,” he said.

Police officers outside Beam Hall.
Police officers outside Beam Hall. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Cade Cagasan, 19, did not wait to hear guidance from the university. He booked a flight to his home state of Hawaii for Saturday, and told professors he needed to be with family. His professors were understanding, he said.

Read more: In wake of UNLV, how California colleges gird against active shooters

“People just can’t. They’re mentally not prepared to take a final exam,” he said. “What they should be focusing on is getting to be with their families.”

Cire Romea, a third-year kinesiology major, was uncertain whether she would even feel safe stepping onto campus come Monday if finals would have gone on. Romea received the first alerts notifying her of an active shooter on campus shortly before arriving to an anatomy and physiology class, where a practical exam was scheduled.

Police cars parked.
Police vehicles on the UNLV campus the day after the shooting. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Romea said the teaching assistant for the course administered the exam despite the warnings, as helicopters circled outside. “It felt kind of ridiculous,” she said.

Larissa Geilen, 21, was about to leave for the university to pick up Christmas gifts from the campus store, when she started receiving alerts about the shooting. She began checking on her peers on the student newspaper over WhatsApp.

Shaken, she scheduled a therapy appointment for Thursday using university resources.

She said she was grateful the university canceled finals and was giving students space to grieve.

But part of her also felt she was missing out on end-of-semester closures. She had graduated from high school at the height of the pandemic in spring 2020. As a UNLV senior she had been looking forward to a more traditional ending to college.

“I’m just having this conflict like: ‘Why are you feeling bad for yourself? You get to breathe, you get to live another day,’” she said. “But then also part of me is just grieving the college experience.”

UNLV student Mina Hickey, 19, center, and other students paint to avoid

Yet, she is grateful the university did not cancel winter graduation, which she will attend.

“I have so many family members coming to support me and watch me walk, and I want to celebrate my hard work,” she said. “I don’t want the shooter to take more from me than he already has.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.