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About 5,000 Virginia Tech students prepare for graduation

There will be moments - today and for years to come - that Andrea and Michelle Falletti will think about the darkest day in Virginia Tech's history, the day a mentally disturbed gunman killed 32 teachers and students, and himself.

But for the 21-year-old twins graduating on Friday, that is all they will be - moments.

"Looking back on everything these past four years, this is just a little part of it," Andrea said. "This isn't going to define our graduation or my memory."

Rather, as she walks onto the football field in Lane Stadium with about 5,000 other graduates for Friday night's commencement, she will remember spring breaks, camping trips and partying downtown with friends.

With their parents and grandparents on hand all weekend to watch the conferring of degrees - Andrea's in business management, Michelle's in accounting - it will, in at least some ways, be the graduation they've long envisioned.

"It's definitely going to be different. Obviously, what has happened has affected everything in our lives, and it will affect graduation," Andrea said. "In a way, it's not going to be celebrating us as much; it's more about what we've done as a community. But that's OK. I'm proud of what we've done here."

The campus has been slowly recovering from the April 16 shootings, in which 23-year-old student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on campus before committing suicide in a classroom building.

As many as 30,000 people are expected for the ceremony for 3,600 graduating seniors, as well as nearly 1,200 graduate students, and dozens of students earning associate or advanced degrees. Retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, who once oversaw Operation Iraqi Freedom and who has a son in college, is the featured speaker.

While some families may feel unsettled returning to a campus where there has been so much pain, school spokesman Mark Owczarski said they should feel safe.

"Virginia Tech remains under a state of alert since April 16th," he said, with the noticeable police presence offering a consistent "sense of safety and protection."

In addition, he said, "General Abizaid brings with him a degree of security."

Bags will be checked, but guests will not pass through metal detectors or undergo more intrusive security measures. The screening is essentially what Virginia Tech does for a typical home football game, Owczarski said.

"I would say that this community has been very understanding of the changes and the differences," he said. "I do really think that the families will be appreciative of it and understanding of it."

In a letter to students' families this week, school President Charles Steger said campus safety is of utmost importance, and Virginia Tech is contemplating several changes even as an independent state panel reviews its handling of the shootings.

"I have read and heard other university presidents and pundits say that this tragedy could have happened on any campus in America. We draw no solace from such observations," Steger wrote. "My hope is that we - and every campus throughout the nation - can learn in the months ahead what happened and why ... to the extent that rational conclusions can be drawn from irrational violence."

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