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Building Communities at Dillard

Building Communities at Dillard

In the Post-Katrina Era

By Marc C. David

When I saw that huge mass of clouds from Hurricane Katrina on a crash course for New Orleans, I had my doubts as to whether the city, let alone Dillard University, would survive a direct hit. The impact of Katrina was potent enough to devastate our facilities and cause more than $300 million worth of damage to the university. Our new president,
Dr. Marvalene Hughes, immediately went to work absolving all uncertainty about the university’s survival. In her words, “Dillard will be back bigger and better than ever.”

We knew we would not return to campus for the 2005-2006 school year. Ultimately, a decision was made to form an alliance with the Riverside Hilton Hotel in New Orleans. The second floor of the Hilton was converted into 20 classrooms, while additional classes were held in the nearby World Trade Center of New Orleans. Today, courses that require labs or other accommodations are held at consortium institutions. To support students’ academic needs, the university maintains academic advising services, a writing center, a tutorial center and a computer lab. Additionally, two accelerated 13-week sessions are being held to keep students on track academically.

Five hundred of the Hilton’s 1,616 rooms are occupied by our students and staff, including the provost, the chief of staff and the vice president of campus life. We are thankful that we have been able to maintain the cost of tuition and boarding, which amounts to $21,000 a year for an
on-campus student.

Just as the hurricane changed our lives forever, so has this unique living and learning environment between faculty, staff and students. This experience has certainly helped us re-evaluate what it means to live in a community. We live on some of the same floors, work in the same academic environment, take meals together and attend social functions at the hotel. Many institutions build multimillion-dollar facilities to create the kind of living and learning environment we have developed.

Immediately following the hurricane, Dillard formed alliances with a number of host institutions throughout the nation, including Morehouse College, Howard University, Louisiana State University and Paul Quinn College. These host institutions agreed to admit our students for up to one year, with the understanding that our students would return once our campus was reopened. Many of these institutions even provided financial and other assistance during this displacement period.
 Dillard has also collaborated with institutions in the New Orleans area following Katrina. Our students have taken courses, used health/counseling services and collaborated on social functions and professional development activities at consortium institutions. The only other time universities in New Orleans collaborate to this extent is during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Week for Peace.

So much of the credit for building this community atmosphere goes to small acts by individual people. Our resident assistants and community leaders have created a sense of community within the confines of the hotel by organizing walking tours, French Quarter excursions, ferry rides on the Mississippi River and other activities that take advantage of our location at the scenic Riverwalk. This has been a wonderful opportunity to merge academic affairs and campus life. Although we have
lost classrooms, our students continue learning everyday.

We have also built strong relationships with local venders at the Riverwalk, the French Quarter, the French Market, Canal Place Mall and countless restaurants, bars, pubs and clubs. When I first arrived in New Orleans in January 2005, many African- Americans complained about discriminatory practices by vendors in the French Quarter. However, in the aftermath of Katrina, I have heard very few complaints of racism, and none at all from our students.

Prior to Katrina, there was very little collaboration between institutions of higher learning and local area businesses in New Orleans. It has taken an act of nature to help us realize how important it is to work together and build these communities, which are so vital to our success in the
post-Katrina era. While architects are reconstructing our campus, I hope that we all take note of the lessons we have acquired throughout this experience and begin reconstructing our vision of what it truly means to live and function in these various communities. 

— Dr. Marc C. David is dean of students at Dillard University in New Orleans.

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