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Katrina’s Aftermath: What Now?

HBCUs are doing their best to create a sense of normalcy for displaced students, but many are still uncertain about their academic futures.

As the floodwaters drowning New Orleans recede, they may well be swamping other HBCUs across the country as schools gear up to deal with a rising tide of displaced college students in search of shelter from the storm.

More than 9,100 HBCU students, plus thousands more faculty and staff, have been directly displaced by Katrina, according to the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education’s HBCU Student Evacuee Program.

Many NAFEO-affiliated schools offered students immediate enrollment, tuition waivers and other forms of aid after Katrina. Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges also responded, telling NAFEO President Lezli Baskerville, “We’ll follow your lead.”

“These are institutions that are stretched in a number of ways, but all the presidents stepped up to the plate,” she says, because “the evidence shows that if students disconnect even for a semester, the likelihood of them returning is slim.”

But many students say their motivation to return to school is high.
“I can’t wait until Xavier reopens,” says Terry Richards, a senior majoring in political science at Xavier University of Louisiana. A summer intern on Capitol Hill in the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., Richards has simply extended his stay in the congressman’s office. He says he’ll wait until Xavier opens to complete his education — even if that means waiting a full school year.

With only 350 miles separating Houston and New Orleans, Texas Southern University made for a natural refuge for students after Katrina struck. By temporarily waiving transcripts and financial aid statements, TSU has enrolled more than 800 students — eight times the number officials had initially planned on.

But officials at the school never hesitated to keep admitting students. “Our heart goes out to them,” says Hasan Jamil, assistant vice president for enrollment services.

It has taken a massive effort on the part of TSU to meet these students’ needs. New sections of classes have opened. Counselors are facing higher advisee loads as they help evacuees identify the courses that will transfer back to their colleges. With dormitories already at full capacity, TSU officials have had to work with apartment complexes to secure housing. The school has also had to develop mechanisms to handle financial deferments, bookstore vouchers and transportation through partnerships with local transit.

“So far we feel fortunate to have the ability to help,” Jamil says. “Some have lost everything. We meet the parents. We hear their stories.”
TSU’s experience is being echoed around the country.

A Valiant effort
Two days after the storm hit, recalls Dr. Marcellus Grace, associate dean at Howard University’s School of Pharmacy, the phones started ringing — and did not stop. Almost all of the calls were from students in Xavier’s pharmacy program.

“I was dean of pharmacy at Xavier for 17 years. I was a Xavier pharmacy graduate, and they were calling me to find out if they could come [to Howard],” Grace says.

“Students were calling from everywhere — Chicago, Houston, wherever they could go. They were going wherever they could get to, and most left with the shirt on their back.”

Grace wanted to absorb all of them. But he quickly found that enrolling graduate students poses special problems.

Unlike relatively flexible undergraduate programs, the coursework at the nation’s 92 pharmacy schools doesn’t match up from year to year. Grace knew he had a match between Howard’s and Xavier’s third-year programs, but the second-year courses at the schools were not comparable. And due to strict guidelines from the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP), Howard’s school of pharmacy was not allowed to take on any additional first-year students.

Grace and his staff worked feverishly during that week to develop a curriculum that he felt would satisfy requirements at Xavier, Howard and the AACP.

Hoping to accommodate around 60 students, Grace says, “We were jumping through hoops. We actually called every student. We were serious. We were prepared to do what ever it took.”

The program was finally hammered out late in the  evening, then approved by each of the parties and was up on the Howard Web site on Sept. 2, a mere four days after the storm made landfall.

“We worked that whole weekend to welcome them,” Grace recalls. “We put together emergency transportation. The students collected food and clothing and brought them to the campus. One student bought $300 worth of toiletries out of her own pocket.”

And then the whole program came crashing down. On Sept. 7, the AACP issued a communiqué from Xavier School of Pharmacy Dean Wayne Harris, instructing first-, second- and third-year students who hoped to graduate from Xavier not to enroll in any other program.

Fourth-year students, who complete their rotations in community clinics and hospitals, are exempt from the prohibition. A single fourth-year student has committed to coming to Howard for those rotations.

“We were expecting 60 or so. Now we have [one],” Grace says.

One Day at a Time
“At first I thought it was just going to be a vacation. I’d have a few days away and then go back,” says Michael Williams of New Orleans.
Williams, a freshman at Southern University-New Orleans who was planning to major in business, had only been on campus for two weeks before the hurricane hit. Like many other students in the city, he was evacuated to Baton Rouge.

The gravity of the situation began to sink in as he watched images of the devastation on television. With no campus to return to, Williams headed to North Carolina A&T State University to join his older sister, Ashleigh, a senior on the Greensboro campus.

The larger campus has been an adjustment, says Williams, but proximity to family and friends in the area have helped him feel at home. And his mother feels more comfortable knowing that her son and daughter are together, he says.

Evidence of the Greensboro community’s compassion abounds. A campus-wide relief drive, “Aggies Care,” is under way. Students, faculty and staff are collecting bottled water at Aggie Stadium, and regular supplies are being delivered by Aggie “Care-a-Van” to Southern University.

Other local colleges are active in the relief effort as well. North Carolina Central University’s concert band, jazz ensemble and choir teamed up with renowned gospel singer and Durham native Shirley Caesar to raise money for hurricane victims, says Sharon Saunders, special assistant to the chancellor for public relations. NCCU has enrolled two full-time students from the hurricane-stricken area, one from Xavier and the other from the University of Louisiana. In addition, NCCU and North Carolina A&T together raised $1,600 from donations during the recent Eagle-Aggie Classic step show. Students at Fayetteville State University have organized a relief drive titled “Lean On Me,” says Jeff Womble, the university’s director of public relations. FSU has created an online application specifically for evacuees and expects to enroll 10 to 15 students for the Fall Term II semester, which begins Oct. 20.

So far, North Carolina A&T has taken in six students from the disaster zone, says Kay Harris, acting director of counseling services. But the displaced students aren’t the only ones personally affected by Katrina. According to Harris, more than 30 current A&T students are from areas affected by the hurricane. In almost a third of those cases, students’ homes have been badly damaged or destroyed.

“It’s a little difficult for them to focus. We’re monitoring them to make sure everything is going well for them,” she says, adding that students are receiving counseling and appear to be adjusting as well as can be expected. 

Tiffiny Reckley, a freshman music major from Hampton, Va., is one of the students learning to roll with the punches while at A&T. “It’s a lot different. I carry a map with me. But everyone is very friendly,” she says.

Reckley’s odyssey began with an early morning phone call to her dorm room at Xavier as the hurricane approached. The caller was her roommate’s mother, frantically urging the girls to evacuate before Hurricane Katrina hit.

Reckley took the advice, leaving that day for Dallas. Like Williams, she initially thought she’d be away from New Orleans only a week or two. But then she heard that Xavier was under 6 feet of water. So Reckley’s mother and her cousin, an A&T graduate, made the arrangements for her to continue her education in North Carolina.

Reckley says her college plans are pretty much up in the air after this semester. Right now she is just taking it “day by day.”

A Scramble for the Stranded
Amina Phelps, a Xavier sophomore, was able to join a student caravan of cars headed toward her hometown of Atlanta. She arrived in town the Sunday before the storm and watched the drama unfold on television.

Realizing she wouldn’t soon be returning, she says, “As a pre-med student I was blessed to be able to get into Spelman because it is a school with strong math and  science programs like we had at Xavier.”
Now that she’s experienced a women’s college for the first time, Phelps says she’s “inspired by the feelings of sisterhood” and may consider transferring.

Spelman is just one of the Atlanta-based schools that has opened its arms to students fleeing the wrath of the storm.

All of the city’s Black colleges swung into action immediately in the wake of the storm, with officials working around the clock on plans to extend academic help. Clark Atlanta University students held prayer vigils and car washes to raise relief money. Among the three schools — Clark Atlanta, Morehouse College and Spelman — officials expect to be able to accommodate more than 100 students until they can make their way to the schools of their choice. Nearly 60 of the students are expected to be housed at Clark Atlanta, with Morehouse and Spelman absorbing 30 students each.

In addition, other north Georgia colleges and universities, including Georgia State University, Emory University, Georgia Polytechnic Institute and more are offering various kinds of help, from classes to emergency room and board. Georgia Tech has made its basketball arena available as sleeping quarters for evacuees.

The problems of the displaced students are numerous and complicated, says Dr. Debi Miller, a coordinator of the relief effort at Clark Atlanta. With an enrollment of nearly 5,000 students, the co-ed college is the largest Black university in the city.

“We are having to attend to the academic, financial and psychological needs of the students,” Miller says, explaining that the students have lost vital emotional and financial support from their families. “We are having to work on a case-by-case basis to get the aid the students require.”

At Spelman, college administrators are scrambling to adjust, says Arlene Cash, vice president for enrollment management.

“We’re preparing to host 30 guest students, and we are allocating 10 percent of all Hurricane Katrina Emergency Scholarship Funds to assist the displaced students,” Cash says. 

“We’re Not Done”
Some of the million-plus people who fled their homes to escape Katrina ended up in Tallahassee, Fla. Approximately 74 evacuees have been admitted at Florida A&M University, says university spokeswoman LeNedra Carroll, adding that 43 have completed their registration and 29 are staying on campus.

“What we’re doing here at FAMU is two-pronged,” she says. “We looked at the students who were already registered here, who were affected by the storm. And … we started a fund.”

According to Carroll, the school spent the first several hours after Katrina’s landfall desperately trying to reach students in the affected areas. But with cellular towers in those areas inoperable, it took some effort and creativity to get in contact with the students. In the end, she says, officials had to rely on student volunteers to text-message the affected students.

To prepare for the influx of displaced students, the school set up a One Stop Center specifically designed to match the needs of evacuees. Located in the William Gray complex, the center helps students navigate the admissions, enrollment and financial aid processes, among others.
The FAMU community has unofficially adopted the evacuees, dropping by to deliver food, clothes and other needed items.

So far, FAMU’s Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort has raised about $15,000 from students, faculty and the surrounding community. The funds, Carroll says, are to be distributed to students and their families.

The Student Government Association has started Operation Southern Hospitality, helping raise funds and goods to give to families displaced in Katrina’s aftermath.

“This is not just ‘we raised $15,000 and we’re done.’ We know there are many needs and we’re trying to meet as many of those needs as possible,” Carroll says.

Reported by Diverse correspondents Cassie Chew, Ernest Holsendolph, Marlon A. Walker and Eleanor Lee Yates.

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