NEW ORLEANS – Stephanie Swisher is settling in nicely as a freshman at the University of Virginia, enjoying classes, Naval ROTC, club volleyball and football Saturdays. Things are going so well, in fact, that she would rather not return to Tulane University in New Orleans — the school she had expected to attend until Hurricane Katrina struck.
"The argument that everyone's giving me is that I'm a freshman so I've never known Tulane, I need to give it a chance,'" she said. "My argument is, why should I have to?"
But Swisher probably will have to give Tulane a chance. Despite her wishes — and a 600-signature petition she helped organize — Virginia is sticking by the conditions under which visiting students were admitted after the hurricane: They must return when their school reopens. And Tulane is scheduled to reopen Jan. 17.
After Katrina, colleges around the country took in an estimated 18,000 displaced New Orleans students. Now, the New Orleans schools desperately need those students to return next semester and pay tuition.
Exactly how many will return won't be known until January. Tulane says 80 percent of its students have already re-registered. Loyola University, which received little damage, just started registration and can only say more than half for now. The situation will likely be more dire at schools such as Xavier and Dillard, which are poorer and suffered more storm damage.
Some students simply want to stay where they are, particularly freshmen who never got attached to their original schools.
Student councils at Virginia, Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, have passed resolutions calling on their schools to be more flexible in letting New Orleans students at least apply to transfer.
Officially, those and other colleges are saying no, wary of breaking their promises to other schools or, in some cases, of letting students use the situation to "trade up" to a more prestigious school.
Of course, students won't truly be forced to return; host colleges can simply refuse to let them transfer there next semester. But there's nothing to prevent students from withdrawing from their New Orleans schools and trying to transfer next fall like anyone else.
So the question becomes, if students are determined to transfer, why force them to return to New Orleans at all?
That's what Amy McClendon, a Tulane freshman from Amite, La., who ended up at Harvard after a brief stint at Louisiana State University, is wondering. She wants to stay at Harvard but will have to return to Tulane and take her chances applying for transfer next fall (Harvard does not let any visiting freshmen apply to transfer). That would mean going back to be a new freshman — for the fourth time.
"I don't want to have to go through it again," she said. "All my friends are here."
Another Tulane student at Harvard, Julie Hall, was so disheartened by conditions in New Orleans on a recent visit that she's applying to transfer to a third school, Wellesley or Washington University. Five of the seven Tulane freshmen at Harvard want to stay there, she said.
"I'm sympathetic to the (New Orleans) schools," said Hall, who says she has made great friends and been a crew coxswain at Harvard. "At the same time, it's my education and I should have the right to go where I want."
Neither she nor McClendon had applied to Harvard out of high school.
The situation has placed college administrators in a bind.
"We're sort of in this moral, ethical dilemma here," said Esther Gulli, chief of staff to the vice chancellor for student affairs at Berkeley, which has been counseling displaced students on their options. "These students have been through a great deal here, and obviously they're just trying to look for a little consistency in their lives. But our agreements with their schools were, when they were open and ready for business we would send their students back."
Swisher, the Tulane student at Virginia, said New Orleans was a big reason she chose Tulane, but the city isn't the same. And despite Tulane's assurances, she says she won't have some opportunities she was counting on, like a Swahili class she had planned to take. At Virginia, she wants to play with her volleyball team, whose games start next semester.
Richard Whiteside, Tulane's vice president of enrollment management and dean of admission, says only about 5 percent of Tulane students have withdrawn so far, and more than 90 percent of freshmen have said they plan to return.
"If somebody's going to be extraordinarily unhappy coming back, we don't want them to come back," Whiteside said.
Still, he still wants other colleges to stick by their promises not to poach.
"I really believe, if students come back for a semester they won't leave again," he said. "New Orleans really gets into their DNA."