Baylor University senior Olivia Gambelin is a passionate advocate for international travel and study abroad.
She highly recommends it after spending last fall studying in Rome.
“A great way to open your mind to other world views is to travel,” said Gambelin, 21. “It challenges you.”
But the philosophy major from San Francisco experienced an overseas challenge she’ll never forget: being in Paris when ISIS terrorists attacked that city Nov. 13, 2015, killing 130 and injuring hundreds more.
Gambelin and her friends, who were in the City of Lights that weekend to celebrate her 21st birthday, were never in the terrorists’ gunsights. But they were in the midst of the mayhem that ensued and had to hunker down for hours.
The experience has left Gambelin with a vast array of emotions and memories ranging from guilt to gratitude. Reports of terror attacks around the world, as well as ambulance sirens in Waco, Texas, evoke feelings of fear and sadness. Yet she’s also reminded that faith in God will get her through those experiences — just as it helped the lifelong Catholic in Paris last November.
“I returned with a stronger faith,” she said.
Paris eerie and shocked
But by no means does that mean she skated through the attacks serenely.
Gambelin said she and a friend had just arrived at their Airbnb residence when chaos erupted a few miles away. Early rumors were a drive-by shooting had occurred at a local restaurant.
“There was a lot of fear from not knowing what was going on,” she said. But they quickly learned from English-language TV news reports that a stadium not far from them had been targeted by a suicide bomber, followed by an attack on a restaurant and several other locations.
“We checked the map and realized we were right in the midst of it,” she said.
It seemed the entire city was embracing for attacks. “We didn’t know what would happen next.”
Gambelin and her friend then pieced together the fact that they could easily have been targets themselves.
“We had been a block away from that restaurant a half hour before the shooting,” Gambelin said.
There was little chance to relax as police and fire sirens rushed up and down streets – including theirs – throughout the night.
The students had been in touch with parents and university officials to report their safety. But going back outside was still pretty scary as French military and law enforcement hunted terrorists.
“Everyone was holding their breath waiting for the next attack to happen,” she said.
But finally, around noon the following day, hunger drove Gambelin and her friend out of the residence.
“There were police caravans going up and down the street.”
There were also a lot of very quiet people walking the streets.
“There was a very eerie effect afterward as everyone was just wandering around in shock,” Gambelin said.
The attacks occurred on a Friday. It was Sunday before Gambelin could catch a flight back to Rome. But even that was fraught with tension.
“My keys were setting off security alarms so I had to unpack everything.”
‘I would go back in a heartbeat’
It’s been close to a year now since Gambelin saw what she saw, heard what she heard and felt what she felt in Paris. But the experience remains a present-tense one for her.
“My mind still goes to Paris,” she said.
Gambelin said she experiences waves of fear and sadness when ambulances go by. A recent shooter event off-campus in Waco — resulting in a lockdown at Baylor — took her back to France in a split second.
“For me, this is something I will always have to deal with,” she said.
One of her professors at Baylor has helped her find a degree of acceptance for what she experienced in Europe that night.
Her belief that God sent her to Paris for a still-mysterious reason is also comforting, Gambelin said.
“But it still comes back when I least expect it,” the fear and sadness of Paris.
And despite it all, Gambelin said she hopes to get back to Europe — and especially to Paris — when she graduates from Baylor.
“Honestly, I would go back in a heartbeat.”