MIDDLEBURY — The national media has been abuzz with the story of Pathik “Tik” Root, a Middlebury College student who went missing two weeks ago while studying Arabic in Syria. Last weekend, Syrian authorities confirmed they had detained Ripton native, but have not said when they will release him.
But as they watch reports on Root’s disappearance roll out, his parents, friends and professors say there’s a side of the 21-year-old that has not been captured in any of those stories.
On campus in Middlebury, Tik Root is active in everything from skiing to climbing to student government. In his first year at the college, Root ran against a senior for president of the college’s Student Government Association, and has served as class senator and director of membership in the organization since then.
He went to Middlebury schools from elementary school until ninth grade, when he headed to Waitsfield to attend Green Mountain Valley School in order to pursue Alpine skiing more seriously.
At Middlebury, Root keeps up with the sport as a member of the ski patrol, a group that helps injured or lost skiers at the Snow Bowl. Middlebury native Thea Morrison, a ski patrol buddy of Root’s, has known Tik Root and his family for many years.
“We had the mutual camaraderie of being Middlebury (College) students from the town of Middlebury,” said Morrison, who graduated this winter.
Morrison urged Root to try out for ski patrol as soon as he arrived on campus. Despite the hurdles to making the squad — including an extracurricular class, additional homework, and many qualified students competing for a spot — Root was selected.
“In general, making it onto ski patrol speaks very highly about a person’s character,” Morrison said. “It takes a tremendous amount of work to make it, and it’s very competitive.”
She said his ability to stay level-headed and his passion for skiing make Root a good companion when dealing with the unexpected — from a twisted knee to a broken leg — on the ski trails.
“Tik is really great with patients,” she said. “He’s definitely the person I’d really like to have (with me) when I’m treating somebody.”
Morrison has been following along on the Facebook group that friends created to follow Root’s story. Nearly 1,500 people have signed on as members of the social media group, and many are posting updates and links to news coverage to stay up to date.
Dani Totten, a Salisbury native and longtime friend of Root’s, has also been following events in the Middle East and in Tik’s case. She said talking with Root in December, when he was home from Egypt on a school break, got her more interested in following what was happening there.
“Tik is a shrewd observer of people and society at large,” Totten said. “He’s one of the most intelligent people I know.”
That observant nature, as well as a passion for languages, said father Tom Root, is what brought him to major in international politics and economics, with a focus on the Middle East, and to choose Alexandria, Egypt, and then Damascus, Syria, for study abroad.
“His interest in the Middle East is that he wants to understand common Middle Eastern people,” Tom Root said in an interview this week. “He wants to communicate what those people are like to Westerners.
“He always wants to bring things to a higher level of discussion,” added Root. “It’s a kind of chomping at the bit to get to the discussions that are substantive.”
Quinn Mecham, a Middlebury professor of political science with a focus on the Middle East, knows Tik Root as his advisor. Mecham said that academically, Root’s curiosity and insightfulness have made an impression on him.
“He’s somebody who is really able to appreciate the world in all its complexity,” said Mecham. “He’s very interested in seeing differences around the world and appreciating those differences.”
Mecham said that Root’s interests tend to lie in the field of environmental and development issues in the Middle East.
Tom Root and Lloyd said that following a number of other language-oriented trips to the Middle East, Tik Root had planned to spend his junior year studying in Egypt to hone his language skills.
But in late January, at the beginning of Tik Root’s second semester abroad in Alexandria, he was one of the students evacuated from Middlebury College’s study abroad program there in the face of nationwide political unrest. Shortly after his return to Vermont, Root began exploring ways to return to the Middle East and continue his study of Arabic.
“(Language) was what was driving him to go back,” Lloyd said. “Early on he made a commitment that he wanted to be there for an entire year so that he could be fluent when he got back.”
Such commitment wasn’t surprising to his old friend Totten.
“It just sort of goes along with his personality,” she said. “When he sets out to do something, whether that’s being the best skier he can be or finishing his homework, he does it.”
The search for Tik Root began very shortly after he went missing March 18 while observing a protest in Damascus. The quick start to the search was a testament to how often Root checked in with family and friends, even while overseas.
“He’s always checking in,” said Tom Root. “Nobody would believe that he was doing something irresponsible, because he would have checked in with a roommate or a friend or us about his whereabouts.”
And until that day, nobody had expected unrest to spread in Syria. In January, when Tik Root and three other students who had been in Alexandria were exploring their options for returning to the region, Syria had stood out as the least likely place for turmoil. On March 18, as the protests were just beginning, Root’s last report was that he was going to observe one of them, as he had done with protests in Egypt. He kept a public blog documenting reports from Egyptians, hoping to share information beyond what was reported in the media with Americans.
“Our real goal right now is to get the Egyptian story out,” Root told the Independentafter he returned from Alexandria in February. “They have a lot to say, and the media tends to be about six hours behind, especially with their analysis.”
Tom Root said that Tik’s interest in following events in the Middle East stems from his interest in the history and politics of the region — not, he clarified, from any desire to join in with the protests.
“He observes these things,” said Tom Root. “But I don’t think that he would politically advocate for anyone.”
“He’s always felt very strongly that it wouldn’t be his place as an outsider to do that,” said Lloyd.
Tik Root also has two younger siblings — a sister, 19, and a brother, 11— following his story from their home in Ripton. Lloyd said that to some extent, they are only now realizing that there’s cause for concern.
“The mythology of Tik in our house is that he can fix anything and talk himself out of absolutely anything,” said Lloyd. “I think that reality is slowly eroding, realizing that this is more than winning an argument about your phone bill with Verizon.”
But when Tik Root is freed, the family says his continuing study of Arabic is the last thing they are worried about. His parents said he will be coming straight back home to Vermont, where his friends and family will be waiting to welcome him back.
“People are really worried,” said Morrison. “Especially in such a tight community, between Middlebury and Middlebury College.”
“Andi says she’s grounded him for life,” Tik’s father, Tom Root, said.
“I might consider releasing him for skiing, if he has one of those ankle bracelets,” added Lloyd.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.