BILOXI, Miss. – When students arrived at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College more than eight months ago, few could have imagined that President Bush would be their commencement speaker.
That was before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the coast, destroying thousands of homes and businesses and leaving behind roughly $17 million worth of damage on campus.
Welcoming Bush to the small coastal community college on Thursday "is probably the biggest thing to ever happen to the school," college spokesman Bill Snyder said before the president's motorcade arrived at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum.
"This is a testament to the students' endurance to have the commander in chief speak at their commencement," Snyder added.
Meanwhile, in Tennessee, first lady Laura Bush challenged the graduating class at Vanderbilt University to participate in Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts, saying helping others can bring happiness.
"It doesn't matter what career you're pursuing, before you start a new job or go to grad school, dedicate a vacation to recovery," she said Thursday morning at Vanderbilt's Senior Day graduation celebration. "It will be time well spent."
Bush encouraged students to volunteer their talents anywhere in the world there was a need, specifically mentioning Africa's fight against HIV and AIDS.
Back in Mississippi, the school had started classes about a week before the Aug. 29 storm, was closed for 17 days. Many students didn't return when classes resumed. By January, the school's enrollment was down 20 percent.
In October, school president Willis Lott wrote a letter inviting Bush to address the college's graduates. Bush accepted the invitation last month, thrilling hurricane-weary students and faculty members.
On top of working 40 hours a week at a pawn shop and wrapping up a degree in criminal justice, Derek Goff found time to help relatives sift through piles of debris where their homes once stood.
"It was a hard fight to keep all my grades up," the 22-year-old said. "It's really hard to concentrate on school work when you're rebuilding your home."
Returning to school was a welcome distraction for Andrea Noll, 20, who is earning a degree in elementary education.
"It was getting back some normalcy," said Noll, whose family's home in Long Beach was heavily damaged by the storm.
Students and their instructors agreed that having Bush as their commencement speaker was a surreal but profound honor.
"It's a historical event," said Larry Burney, who teaches office technology. "We'll talk about it forever."
Many of the school's graduates are moving on to four-year colleges, but Katrina has changed postgraduate plans for others. Snyder said many are moving on to careers in the construction and hospitality industries to take advantage of the unprecedented rebuilding effort on the Gulf Coast.
"A lot of these kids are going to be a huge part of the post-Katrina work force," he said.