College life after Katrina
African-American students from New Orleans adapt to the culture up north
RINDGE, N.H. — 'My mom told me, 'Think of it like study abroad.' " For all Whitney Wallace knew of New Hampshire, it might as well have been a foreign country. But when she got word that she could attend college here for free this semester after evacuating from Dillard University in New Orleans, she didn't worry about the details. The sophomore had been sitting at home in Jackson, Miss., for a week when a friend spotted Franklin Pierce College's scholarship offer on the Internet. "I just thought, 'Let me hurry up and do it before I change my mind,' " she says, her slipper-clad feet kicking back and forth as she relaxes in her dorm on a Friday afternoon.
Ms. Wallace could have stayed closer to home, at any number of colleges in the region that opened their doors for free to evacuees. But she and friend Tyger Russell decided to head north for an adventure instead. Thanks to the Dillard network, five others from the historically black college found the right academic fit at Franklin Pierce and arrived here during the first week of September.
Hundreds of schools around the United States are now host to the diaspora of Gulf Coast students and faculty. Franklin Pierce counts 14 "Katrina scholars" - the rest coming from Tulane and Loyola - among its 1,600 students. As homework intensifies and the trees take on the rich hues of fall, the initial flurry of donations and local media attention is fading. But those little moments of discovery keep happening - the comparisons of food and weather and culture that are part of any encounter "abroad."
Dean of admissions Lucy Shonk reassured a number of Dillard parents who were wary about their children arriving there from a campus that's almost entirely African-American. With about 7 percent of the student body from minority groups, Franklin Pierce is diverse by New Hampshire standards, she says. "It's a place where everybody gets along ... and it's diverse not just in terms of minorities but all types of backgrounds." Being in a rural area, she adds, forces the college to build a strong sense of community and trust.
Phebe Robinson, an African-American admissions counselor and recent graduate, welcomed students at the airport and introduced them around campus. On a trip to Wal-Mart, one student got emotional when she picked out the same notebook she had left behind in the now-flooded buildings. "She was saying, 'Is this really real? I can't believe you're paying for all this,' " Robinson says. "I can't describe how good it was to feel like we were helping."
Soon they had packed their schedules with classes, clubs, and sports - one young woman from Dillard joined the crew team as a novice and is hosting a radio show on Tuesday afternoons. "They've just thrown themselves into this community.... I see them becoming leaders," Ms. Robinson says.
Wallace says she's excited to be on a campus that to her eyes is very diverse. "I've met Italians, Japanese.... These are people I never get to meet on my campus." she says. And some simply defy categories: "There's this guy," she says, giggling, "he wears tie-dyed clothes and hangs a stereo around his neck and just starts dancing."
On their second day in New Hampshire, Wallace and Ms. Russell signed up for the campus's traditional Mountain Day. Along with 250 students and faculty, they had their first hiking experience, climbing to the 3,100-foot summit of nearby Mt. Monadnock. Wallace cracked jokes all the way up to mask her terror. "At the top, I just lay there. I didn't want to move.... I thought I was on 'Fear Factor,' " she says. Russell came away with a postcard-perfect response: "If I can do this, I can do anything."
Two weeks before, they had been throwing clothes and flip-flops into bags, thinking they'd be away from Dillard for only a few days, like last year when they evacuated for hurricane Ivan. Wallace brought books and her laptop, and the Internet has been a lifeline.
The Dillard students, even those who didn't know each other before, have bonded here at Franklin Pierce, and they say it's been essential to their recovery. "Without having somebody here, this is too far," Russell says. "I'd be crying all day."
Another support network: a women's group on campus called Sistuhs. Its members are from various racial backgrounds, but many are women of color, including the group's ebullient president, Kutendereza Olatungi-Babumba, known around campus as "Tuki." She says she's enjoyed learning about the Dillard students' life down south. "They're used to Southern pleasantries.... One girl said, 'I'm not used to holding my books' - because guys would always offer to carry them!" As for being in a place where they're in the minority instead of the majority, she says they're adjusting well. "It's good to experience a change. You can keep it with you the rest of your life," she says.
Wallace's one complaint is that she's "20 minutes away from the rest of civilization." In New Orleans, she could get around the whole city and find plenty to do, but here in this rural setting, her off-campus entertainment usually consists of taking the shuttle bus to Wal-Mart.
The Katrina scholars are already thinking about their next steps, since the free tuition, room, and board at Franklin Pierce is a one-semester deal. Student Jessica Champagne, a New Hampshire resident enrolled at Loyola, says she's eager to get back and help, even if just to make sandwiches for workers rebuilding the city. Her campus wasn't damaged as extensively and plans to reopen in January.
Several of the Dillard students say they're most likely to transfer to other schools rather than return to New Orleans. Russell and Wallace say they'll miss friends and traditions like step-dancing competitions, but they just don't want to run from hurricanes anymore. And Brandyi Phillips, a sophomore from Minnesota, hopes to pursue her mass communications major at Pace University in New York starting in January. "Dillard's a great school," she says, "but it's financially and educationally unstable."
Dillard's leaders are working hard to allay those concerns and ensure that students return. The school worked out an agreement to set up temporarily at Tulane University, which suffered significantly less damage, starting in January. "We want students to recognize that we want them back, but we only will bring them back to an environment that's safe and secure," says Walter Strong, Dillard's vice president for institutional advancement.
Administrators have heard from many students who do plan to return to Dillard, he says, especially upperclassmen who hope to march down the campus's beloved Avenue of the Oaks to receive their diplomas.
Marvalene Hughes took the helm of Dillard University in July. Now she finds herself presiding over a campus laid to ruin.
Ms. Hughes is splitting her time between the school's Atlanta "command center" and Washington, D.C., where she's lobbying Congress to support colleges that face the daunting task of rebuilding.
Dillard's administrators have made contact with just over half of their 2,100 students, who have enrolled this semester as guests in at least 60 colleges.
Katrina displaced approximately 100,000 college students, the American Council on Education (ACE) estimates. About half attended colleges that still haven't reopened.
The question is how many will come back to New Orleans. "The longer it takes to reopen the institutions, the more difficult it will be to persuade students to return, especially first-year students who probably had not bonded with the city at all," says Terry Hartle, senior vice president at ACE in Washington.
Dillard was among the hardest-hit campuses. Floods damaged all but one building, and fire destroyed three. Mold might render others beyond repair.
The plan is to reopen next semester, but to hold most classes at Tulane University in another section of New Orleans. That kind of ad hoc agreement will be typical as colleges respond to such an unprecedented disaster, Mr. Hartle says. "But even these flexible arrangements raise complicated questions in the realm of public policy," he adds. For instance, where do student aid dollars go if students enrolled in one university are taking classes and living at another? University officials are working out such details day by day, as well as appealing for financial help.
Hughes now faces the ultimate leadership challenge. "With 136 years of excellence [and] all of the outstanding alumni ... around the world, I want to be sure we can protect that legacy," she says. "At the same time, I want us to take a fresh look at what we can do to position Dillard for an even stronger and brighter future."