By now, almost everyone has heard of how Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords miraculously survived the gun wound to her head during her “Congress on Your Corner Event,” in Tucson, Ariz. on Jan. 8. Immediately following the tragic event, she received a spontaneous outpouring of support from people all over the country. President Barack Obama came to the University of Arizona to make a speech celebrating the fighting spirit of Gabby Giffords and remembering the six people killed in the shooting. What many do not know is that, years before running for the U.S. House of Representatives, Giffords attended Scripps College.
Giffords came to Scripps in Fall 1989 after spending a semester at an Arizona community college and a semester at the University of Arizona. She graduated in 1993 with a double major in Latin American Studies and Sociology. In 1992, she was awarded both the Esterly Award, given to students who “present worthwhile educational projects to be conducted during the summer,” and the Slocum Award, awarded to seniors who have “assembled the best personal libraries” during their time at Scripps.
According to Tara Tavi SC ’92, who became friends with Giffords during her first year at Scripps, Giffords was just as well known for her personality as she was for her studies.
“We used to eat all our meals together,” said Tavi. “We were in the same dorm and there was a group of us that would always hang out. She had a lot of friends when she was at Scripps.”
Tavi recalled a few of Giffords’s passions during her time at Scripps, which included listening to bands and rockabilly music in Pasadena. She also owned her own Vespa and would often attend large scooter rallies, Tavi added.
Giffords had a strong interest in Spanish literature. She even spent some of her time at Scripps living in the Spanish residence hall, Tavi said.
“I think a lot of these interests she had were forged because of where she was from and the kind of politics going on in Arizona,” Tavi said.
Helen Wolter SC ’93, explained that she and the future Congresswoman became good friends in their first year at Scripps. Wolter and Giffords have continued to stay in touch since college and even attended each other’s wedding. While at Scripps, Wolter recalls taking runs with Giffords in the LA foothills and going with Giffords to a “zany” aerobics class at Pomona.
Despite Giffords’ fast ascent into politics, Wolter and Tavi both said Giffords was not very political while she attended at Scripps.
“She wasn’t one of these careerist politicians types that start planning to go into politics from a young age,” Tavi said. “She wasn’t gearing up for politics in that way.”
In fact, when Giffords finally called Wolter in 2001 and told Wolter about her plan to run for the Arizona House of Representatives, Wolter had to ask her whether she was running as a Democrat or a Republican.
“She was never someone who was always talking nonstop about her political views,” Wolter said. “She is just someone interested in the world.”
Still, Wolter admitted that Giffords ending up in political office did not surprise her very much. Giffords lived in the Social Science corridor at Scripps, and Wolter explained that the two friends would often talk idealistically about how they could make the world a better place.
“She loved helping people and working with people,” said Wolter. “That’s what we talked about doing, so it always made sense to me that she ran for political office.”
Giffords also made a strong impression on a number of her professors. Music Professor Michael Lamkin, who taught Giffords for a year in orchestra, where she played the French Horn, explained that Giffords was always in positive spirits during her time at Scripps.
“She was always smiling when she came to class, and this isn’t a fake smile that someone puts on when they are posing for a camera,” Lamkin said. “She was a genuine person.”
“She is really pleasant and never confrontational, even if you disagreed with her,” Lamkin said. “She was always a thoughtful and intellectual voice in what can be a messy business. I think these attributes and characteristics are valued by the people who have trusted her with leadership positions.”
While Lamkin noted Giffords’s love for music, he added that she heavily involved herself in a range of activities at Scripps.
Scripps History Professor Julia Liss, who taught Giffords in 1990 in a course about the American responses to the atomic age, also vividly remembered the Congresswoman.
“She was a really memorable student,” Liss said. “She was insightful and energetic. I wasn’t surprised that she has become someone who has really made a difference in the world.”
After she graduated, Giffords received a Fulbright scholarship, allowing her to spend a year studying “fertility, fecundity, mortality, morbidity, and migration rates” in Chihuahua, Mexico.
When she returned, Giffords began her transition into politics. She served in the Arizona House of Representatives from 2001 to 2003 before earning a seat in the Arizona State Senate, which she held from 2003 to 2005. In 2006, Giffords won a seat in the US House of Representatives as a moderate Democrat representing the predominantly Republican state of Arizona. She was also the first Jewish female to represent Arizona in the House.
In 2004, while Giffords was still a member of the Arizona State Senate, Scripps College awarded her the Outstanding Recent Alumna award. In 2009 she returned to her alma mater to give the Commencement Address.
“It was a splendid speech—the kind of thoughtful, positive, energetic presentation she always made,” said Lamkin, who attended the address.
On Nov. 5, 2010, Giffords won a highly contested election to secure her third term in the House.
Two months later, on Jan. 8, Jared Loughner shot and killed six people and injured 14 others in an attempt to assassinate Congresswoman Giffords during her “Congress on Your Corner” event.
Prior to the shootings, Wolter said that Giffords had expressed some concern about vandalism that occurred at her Arizona office following the Health Care votes.
“She was frustrated,” Wolter said. “Here she had worked so hard and really felt the Health Care Bill was important for her country and her district. She was frustrated that there would be that reaction.”
Yet, even after such acts of vandalism and threats, Tavi was not surprised that the Congresswoman was still out talking with her constituents the day of the shooting.
“I don’t think people like her are likely to get jaded,” Tavi said. “She was intellectually curious and optimistic about the potential of people. She couldn’t help but be idealistic.”
Against all odds, Giffords survived the shootings. Though doctors still do not know whether she will ever fully recover, she is currently making remarkable strides in the TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Tavi said. “She was an overachiever just as much then as she is now. She’s so unstoppable.”
Though Tavi admitted that the shooting has shaken her, she did recognize that if any positive thing has come from the tragedy it has been watching so many people celebrating Giffords.
On Jan. 18, the Scripps College community joined together for a Circle of Hope in honor of Giffords and the other victims of the shooting in Arizona.
“I thought it was a really moving and important opportunity for people in the community at large—students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members—to express support for her,” said Liss, who attended the event.
Hundreds of people have also posted “Letters for Gabby,” which are on the Scripps website.
“I hope she can recover from this tragic event because I know she can contribute so much more to our society,” said Lamkin. “It’s amazing to see all the support she’s getting from Scripps alumni, students, and the wider community. It’s a dramatic illustration of the impact she’s had already on so many people’s lives.”