A Change of Heart: An Exchange Student’s Account of Pulse
Zoe Williamson was a student visiting from the University of Gloucestershire in England and participating in a comparative policing student exchange program in partnership with the UCF Department of Criminal Justice the night of the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12. She was riding along with Orange County Sheriff’s Office Reserve Sergeant Jay Rosario that night and saw firsthand the magnitude of the attack. This is her story of what took place June 12.
Thinking back over the past year, everything seems to be a whirlwind. The events of June 12, 2016 have changed my life, and my perspective on the world forever. It has also reinforced in my brain how much I want to be a police officer and how much of a passion I have for helping people. The tragic events that occurred have impacted Orlando’s community, your community, myself and how I identify with the world, affecting countries throughout the world. It has impacted how people view one another, the value of life and, for myself, has opened up to me the pain and heartbreak that one person can administer.
I come from a small hamlet in the UK, a place no one has ever heard of. It holds a post box and has a population of about 15 people. I have lived there for fifteen years and I think within that time, the police have visited once and that still seems to be the village gossip despite having occurred about ten years ago. My family are farmers, having farmed land for generations, and, in total, have moved about 20 miles in the last two centuries, with this current generation being the first to go to a university. I don’t know why, but something in me has always had a passion for helping those in need and since the age of five, I have wanted to be a police officer (before that, I wanted to be a fire fighter). I have always wanted to explore more, do more and see what the world may offer to me and, with these aspirations, I went to a university, enthusiastic for the future, eager for the opportunities that may be provided to me and excited for where my future was going to head.
I first heard of the trip to Florida and UCF when I was looking at universities and it was one of the main reasons that I chose the University of Gloucestershire; the trip looked amazing and I knew instantly it was something I would like to participate in. Like how cool would it be to explore another country, completely immersing myself in their culture not only looking at the tourist areas of Florida or the parts that most others who travel there see, but delving into the hardships of living in a tourist location, considering Florida’s crime and how as an international community which is continuously changing, one identifies with society.
The trip was incredibly popular, with many people applying to participate and I was nervous that I wouldn’t be one of the 18 people that the trip would accommodate for. However, I was accepted and, as soon as I found this out, began counting down the days until June 3, 2016 when we would travel. We flew to Florida, animated for what the trip would hold for us and looking forward to getting away from the endless downpour of rain in England.
The first couple of days flew past in an absolute blur; I was having the time of my life and had absolutely fallen in love with Florida, its people and its culture. Everyone was so welcoming and, after the first seven days, I had never felt more at home or comfortable. We had our disagreements (especially considering American gun culture and the use of armed police; the idea of it was so foreign to me that it blew my mind) but apart from that, everything was going swimmingly. However, the part of the trip that I was most excited about was the ride along we were going on with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Reserves Unit.
To start the ride along, we were driven to one of the police headquarters where we were assigned our officers. The evening I had been waiting for had arrived. I was assigned to officer Jay Rosario. We went off together, laughing and joking, excited for what the night might hold for us. I was nervous about the trip but Jay put me instantly at ease.
The night was quiet; we didn’t attend many incidents but it was so interesting learning about the job. I asked question after question, never shutting up, always wanting to know more and more. I was so inquisitive about the role of the job, asking all those annoying theory questions from points that I have learnt from my time at university.
We were on our way back to the hotel when a suspected burglary call came through and Jay took it. As we were on our way to the burglary, another call got placed out: a code 43, an active shooting. We were placed on this call, with all officers being required on scene. Jay turned the car around and sped off as more and more information was being relayed over the radio. The closer we got, the more I realized how big this was. Adrenaline was racing through my body and my palms were sweating as I tried to take everything in.
At one junction, Jay stopped the car and ran to the boot (trunk) and got out a large gun, and placed it in-between us. We traveled the rest of the way in silence, barely speaking two words to each other, deep in thought of what was going to happen and intently listening to the radio to try and work out what was occurring. We arrived at the scene and the sight was like no other I have ever seen before and one I never would want to see again. The road was full of police cars, red and blue canvassing the landscape for as far as the eye could see, flashing in a continuous cycle.
We pulled up to the scene and both got out of the car, both constantly vigilant, taking in all the sights and smells around us. Crouched behind a car, we tried to find out what was going on, asking other officers, guns drawn and at a heightened sense of awareness. I ended up talking to some of those who were injured and all fear and trepidation left me leaving me with one sole target; to help those that were in need to the best of my ability.
Reflecting on the following events that occurred, I don’t remember feeling anything but an overwhelming sense of need to help, which I think blocked out all other emotions. Like everyone else who was there, police officers and victims included, we did what needed to be done, not thinking of the consequences, but making sure we helped to the best of our ability. Back in the UK, I often get compared to a hero but I don’t see myself as that; I am just an average 21-year-old at the university who just happened to be on an exchange trip.
Before I came to Florida, I had a very negative view on American cop gun culture. I believed that it was unnecessary and that by getting rid of guns it would solve so many issues within society. I thought I knew better, comparing American culture to the UK’s, many of my lectures having been on the negative implications of armed police and the detrimental effects it can have upon the accountability and community trust within the force. I was adamant that the British way of policing was so much better. However, what I never counted on was the culture in America. I never thought of your constitution and what it meant to you, why you had guns and why armed police is so necessary. At home, we have one armed response unit for both Devon and Cornwall and if called, they could take up to 4 hours to get to an incident. The reaction speed of the police, their readiness to risk their lives and the overall commitment to their jobs is like nothing I have seen before. If they didn’t have guns, I dread to think of what the consequences would have been. I get it. I take my hat off to those officers who go out and protect your culture, lives and society and I find those efforts inspirational.
I learned many lessons during my time in Orlando and I think of the events and your people daily. The strength and resilience of the Floridian people has taught me how precious life is and how you should value the life you are provided with, living it to its fullest. The lives that were taken on June 12 are an incredible loss to society but I believe strongly that they live on through us, in our thoughts, our actions and how we treat others. Thoughts of Pulse plague me daily and draw out negative thoughts in myself causing me to doubt humanity and with mass shootings, murders and terrorist’s attacks becoming a daily topic of news stations and media outlets, it would be easy to let one become filled with hate. However, out of the darkness comes light and by looking at how a community comes together to become stronger, it proves to me that goodness will overrule hate leaving me with a glimmer of hope during my darker days.
For her assistance and bravery in helping others that night, Williamson received a Medal of Merit from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, presented by Reserve Chief Deputy and College of Health and Public Affairs Associate Dean Ross Wolf, last month in England. For his bravery during the tragedy, Rosario was awarded a Medal of Valor at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office from Sheriff Jerry L. Demings.