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'Katrina' Students Head Back to New Orleans Colleges

Some took the semester off to start hurricane relief funds. Others left for schools as far away as Michigan. But this month, students are returning to classes at the colleges and universities in New Orleans that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

"It's sort of a mix of everything," said Sarah Barnett, a New Orleans native and student at Loyola University New Orleans who attended Fordham University in New York last fall.

"I'll be excited to go home. It's a homecoming for me. I grew up in New Orleans, I love New Orleans, but at the same time, I know it's going to be difficult … it's going to be strange and unusual and not the same city that I left."

Colleges around the country opened their arms to the 75,000 to 100,000 students who were displaced after Katrina roared ashore Aug. 29, just days before most semesters were scheduled to start. As they evacuated, most students thought Katrina was like storms in the past, so they took only a few items with them.

"I thought we'd be back in a few days ... I only brought a pair of slacks" and some other small items, said Adam Hawf, a junior at Tulane University who is pursuing a double major in English and history. Hawf eventually got a ride to the airport and, after 20 hours, got one of the last flights out of New Orleans back home to Columbia, Mo., the day Katrina hit.

But after seeing on TV the massive destruction caused by Katrina, most students knew their schools would be forced to close for the fall semester.

"I'm not a TV watcher, but I was on overload immediately after coming home ... and whenever the levees broke … just hearing the news and seeing what was going on and talking to my friends, I remember thinking, 'it seems unlikely to me that Tulane was going to have a semester,'" Hawf said.

But after closing last fall and scrambling to get facilities back up and running, Louisiana schools are reopening their doors better and stronger than ever, they say.

Those schools include: Delgado Community College, Dillard University, Loyola University New Orleans, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Our Lady of Holy Cross College, Southern University New Orleans, Tulane University, Upper Iowa University's Jackson Barracks Center, William Carey College's New Orleans Campus, and Xavier University.

"It's been an incredible experience but I'm really excited" about students coming back to campus, said Warren Bell Jr., associate vice president for media relations for Xavier University. "I think it's safe to say most of the university is very excited to return back to some semblance of normal operations so quickly after this storm, particularly at the prospect of having 3,100 of our students have faith in us to come back to New Orleans for their education."

Most colleges offered free tuition to displaced students who had already paid tuition at their New Orleans schools. And most are telling students they must either go back to their original schools this semester or try to apply as transfer students.

Many schools with coastal campuses in Mississippi were hard hit, but most were able to begin classes later in the fall semester. The University of Southern Mississippi's Long Beach campus closed but is operating out of a hospital facility purchased before the hurricane. The University of Mississippi offered three online academic courses to some displaced students.

Despite the fact many University of Southern Mississippi faculty lost their homes, they came to work every day to make sure the students could get back to a near-normal schedule.

"It's just amazing. We had more than 100 faculty and staff who were displaced who continued to come to work. Some people had to sleep in their offices, with family members, in tents, some of them are still living in FEMA trailers," said David Tisdale, assistant director of marketing and public relations for the school known as "Southern Miss."

Public and private colleges suffered almost $700 million in damages, according to the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning.

"Much like other businesses in the state of Mississippi, all of our eight institutions and our nearly 70,000 students have faced overwhelming challenges as a result of Katrina, such as property damage, extreme financial impact and great personal loss," Dr. Thomas Meredith, Mississippi's commissioner of higher education, said of the state's public colleges.

Of the $200 million in federal assistance coming to Mississippi and Louisiana higher education institutions, Southern Miss will receive about $5 million. It also received $1.5 million from the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, as well as individual and corporate donations. That money will be used for scholarships to help encourage the 1,000 or so students who could not return to school last fall to come back this spring or next year.

"For those who had to drop out, we just tried to get the message out, 'you know, we're here to help out,'" Tisdale said. "In addition to trying to make it easy for them to get back to school, we also wanted to let them know we're here to support them otherwise. They're not just a number to us. They're part of our family."

'I Need to Graduate'

Barnett and her family had to evacuate from St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans to Houston after realizing how bad the storm was going to be. When in Houston, she said, "I suddenly got my bearings and thought, 'I'm a senior, I need to graduate.'"

She was accepted to Fordham University two days after she applied, and began classes less than one week later. Fordham enrolled 104 students from Gulf Coast schools.

"It was very overwhelming and I still hadn't dealt with any of the stuff I had been through, and I get here [to New York] and I'm shocked," Barnett said. "Once it wore off, everything sort of hit me at once: My home is gone, I'm up here in a place where I don't really know anyone … it was really tough in the beginning."

But thanks to grief counseling, her family and new friends at Fordham, Barnett was able to get through the semester.

"I had such an amazing support group here at Fordham," she said. "All the people here have been so supportive and welcoming, they sort of took me in without any questions. It's been really healing."

T.J. Ortenzi, a senior at Loyola University originally from Hershey, Pa., heard he was accepted into Fordham just three days after he applied.

While Fordham and Loyola are two totally different schools in character and the cities in which they call home, Ortenzi was able to enjoy some experiences in New York — like his internship with New Line Cinema's publicity department — that he might not have had in New Orleans. When he goes back to the Big Easy, the double French and communications major hopes to get an internship with a cable network's new New Orleans bureau.

"It's a little bittersweet now that the hurricane came along and now all the news the hurricane has brought," Ortenzi said. "Hopefully when I get back there, in a really strange way, I will have an opportunity I wouldn't have had if the hurricane hadn't happened."

Fordham University President Joseph McShane came across one visiting Loyola student who thanked him on the last day of the fall semester for what the New York school had done for the New Orleans students.

"He told me that he had found Fordham to be a very welcoming community where he made fast friends quickly and that the faculty treated him well," McShane said. "I told him, 'you know, of course, you've given us more than we've given you.'"

McShane said the "Katrina" students were important to Fordham and challenged the school, students and faculty to think about how "best respond to humanity at a moment when the human family was suffering."

"These students were very, very helpful to us … they were prophets in our midst calling us to remember the poorest among us," he added.

The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, offered about 80 Katrina students one or two semesters as visitors. That campus also had 82 enrolled students who hailed from the hurricane-hit areas. About three-dozen of those more than 160 students were in "severe economic or personal straights," said Sue Eklund, the dean of students.

Landlords offered some half-priced off-campus housing, local residents offered rooms in their homes and the university made space for others wanting to live on campus. Faculty brought in extra kitchen utensils and other items to donate to students, while one staffer even helped negotiate discounted beds with a local retailer.

She added: "I think our student body was very generous, extending invitations, being friendly to people. It was such a close-to-home kind of disaster that I don't think anybody could look at what was happening and not realize it could easily have been them and their families."

But the visiting students also brought their experiences with them to Michigan, so it was a learning experience on both ends, Eklund said.

"There was a lot of gumbo eaten around Ann Arbor this time of year, which wasn't the usual fare," Eklund said, since many Katrina students stayed in the area during Thanksgiving. "It was a very unusual connection."

Coming Home

It's a near miracle some campuses hardest hit by Katrina are able to open their doors at all this semester. But they had lots of help from individual colleges and donors, as well as organizing groups like the United Negro College Fund. The U.S. Senate approved $200 million in hurricane-relief funds for Louisiana and Mississippi colleges.

Former President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton doled out $30 million from the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund to affected colleges and universities.

Brown University used $1.1 million of a $5 million hurricane relief gift to establish "recovery semester" scholarships this semester at Dillard and Xavier universities, as well as Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss. Princeton University raised funds for Dillard and, among other things, donated 30 computers and offered hundreds of suites of dormitory furniture to help rebuild the campus. Other schools sent students down to New Orleans to help rebuild and offered free online courses to Katrina students.

Classes at Dillard University begin Monday at the Hilton Riverside Hotel in New Orleans and other campuses around the city after Katrina caused $400 million in damage to the campus in the hard-hit Gentilly neighborhood. In November, the university laid off 202 of its staff and faculty. Officials worked in Washington and Atlanta for several months, and many of the college's more than 1,500 students enrolled in other historically black institutions last fall while retaining academic credit from Dillard.

"I am so grateful to all the colleges and universities that opened their hearts and their doors to our students so they could temporarily relocate and continue their education," University President Marvalene Hughes, who came on board last July, wrote last month.

She said no matter what, the 2006 commencement for the school's seniors will march down the Avenue of the Oaks on Dillard's campus in June.

"I have pledged to our seniors they will not be denied that experience," Hughes said. "It is what drives my every waking hour since Katrina turned our world upside down."

Many of Xavier University's facilities were flooded and damaged by mold. The campus has been a construction site for the past three-and-a-half months but it's open for business on Monday. Not only the students were displaced; about three-quarters of the faculty and staff also lost homes and are looking for housing back in New Orleans after dispersing to other cities and towns after Katrina.

School officials, who originally hoped to get 2,000 of their 4,000 pre-Katrina enrolled students back, are ecstatic that 3,118 are returning to Xavier; that college also holds the title of being the undergraduate school that sends the most black students to medical school every year. The pharmacy school is at almost a 98 percent retention rate for the spring semester.

"We're literally scrambling right now to get ready and to get more bed spaces ready," Bell said. "Those students won't give up their spots, come hell or high water or hurricane … They chose Xavier for a specific reason — they wanted to enhance their odds of being as well prepared as possible for medical school."

About 87 percent of 6,400 pre-Katrina enrolled undergraduates are coming back to Tulane University, located in uptown New Orleans. About two-thirds of that campus flooded and the medical school, located in downtown New Orleans, was hit harder. Tulane had to cut 150 full-time faculty positions at the uptown campus and 130 from the medical school, as well as five undergraduate majors in science and engineering, and eight athletics programs. Student orientation is scheduled for Wednesday; classes begin Jan. 17.

"Tulane sustained serious operating losses, as well as losses to its buildings and research assets," said Lester Lefton, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. "As a consequence, it is going through a renewal program, a refocusing of the institution."

To make sure students came back this semester, Tulane officials traveled around the country to talk to their students and held open houses for parents and students to meet with the university president and view the campus and city. Workers toiled around the clock to restore the facilities.

About 87 percent of students, or 2,743, of Loyola University's undergraduates are returning to school in New Orleans on Monday, while 82 percent of its law students are coming back. The university can house 1,500 students on campus, and most students have been accommodated.

A consortium arrangement has been set up for the spring semester at Dillard, Loyola, Tulane, and Xavier, which allows students at any of those schools to take courses at the other where space is available. The credit and grades will appear on the transcript of the home institution.

In many cases, it's not the students but the parents who are hesitant about sending their kids back to New Orleans. The students, while most liked the schools they attended on a visiting basis last fall, are anxious to return.

"The parents are concerned about sending their kids to New Orleans, which they recognize is a devastated city … [but] the students are deeply committed to coming back to Tulane," Lefton said. "They feel welcomed there [at temporary] but that's not where they chose to go to school. They chose to go to school here and they want to come home. The overwhelming response from the student is, 'I can't wait to get back to Tulane.'"

"My mom, she would have preferred that I would have chosen a state school in Pennsylvania in the area but she knows how much I love it and she is happy to see me going back to the place that I love," Ortenzi added.