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Family of Otto Warmbier to return to Grounds for the first time since their son Otto’s death

A variety of speakers will discuss Otto’s life, as well as the lessons that can be learned from his passing

<p>Interested students, faculty and community members are encouraged to attend the event, Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. in Nau Hall 101.</p>

Interested students, faculty and community members are encouraged to attend the event, Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. in Nau Hall 101.

More than six years ago, Otto Warmbier, a then-third-year Commerce student, Echols Scholar and member of Theta Chi fraternity, was arrested in North Korea on an official tour of the country after the North Korean government accused him of stealing a political banner. After spending 17 months imprisoned in North Korea, Otto was returned to the United States in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and died a week later.

Now, for the first time since their son’s death, Otto’s parents Cindy and Fred Warmbier are returning to the University. As the fifth anniversary of Otto’s death approaches, the Warmbiers will return for a speaking panel on what lessons can be gleaned from Otto’s death.

Think Again, a faculty-led program within the College of Arts and Sciences that promotes free speech and open discussion, is hosting the event. 

Speakers at the event include Billy Burgess, one of Warmbier’s best friends at the University and Class of 2017 alumnus, Yeonmi Park, prominent North Korean defector currently living in the U.S., and Law Prof. Sai Prakash. The panel is open to the public and will be held at Nau Hall Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

Gerard Alexander, associate professor of politics and director of Think Again, says those who attend the event will learn not only about Warmbier’s story, but how important rights and liberties are.

“Maybe it comes across as a little bit preachy, but I think those of us who live our whole lives in democracies tend to just assume the respect of our rights and liberties,” Alexander said. “To the extent that they're honored, and respected and enforced, we just assume that that's how life is.”

Warmbier’s detention by the North Korean regime meant he suddenly found himself with virtually no rights, a topic that Park is expected to discuss more about Thursday night, Alexander said.

Today, five years removed from Otto’s death, some faculty members are concerned that the current generation of students — none of which could have shared a classroom with Warmbier or seen him strolling across Grounds — have forgotten about Warmbier’s legacy and the impact of his detention on the University. 

In October, a piece of artwork honoring Warmbier was stolen from the Theta Chi house. At the time, third-year College student Ray Ruhlmann called the act one of “foolish compulsiveness” and urged to the thief “rectify [their] mistake” — the artwork was returned a few weeks after it was stolen with an anonymous note apologizing for the “disrespectful and inconsiderate” act. 

Alexander believes it’s unfortunate that current students have not made a bigger deal out of Otto Warmbier’s life and his presence on Grounds, and shared that Think Again’s event hopes to change this.

“A Wahoo who was an active member of the community, at the time on his way to a J-Term study abroad underwent this nightmare and it's appropriate to just appreciate and remember his presence among us and remember his story,” Alexander said.

Alexander recounted Warmbier’s known love for the University and his varied involvements on Grounds, including with Theta Chi and as a member Hillel, a Jewish undergraduate student group.

Alexander hopes the event sparks a dialogue about how best to honor Warmbier on Grounds and find a way to develop something constructive out of tragedy. These conversations, according to Alexander, slowed since Otto was given a posthumous degree to formally mark him as a graduate of the class of 2017. Alexander wants community members including faculty and students to exercise agency in deciding how best to further honor Warmbier throughout Grounds.

“Since then I don't think anyone's really asked the question, what would it be appropriate to build or start at U.Va. to make something constructive out of his time there and what then happened to him,” Alexander said.

Interested students, faculty and community members are encouraged to attend the event, Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. in Nau Hall 101.