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A Spring Break From the Ordinary

A Spring Break From the Ordinary
Hundreds of Howard University students descended on New Orleans, but not to party
By Michelle J. Nealy

The stereotypical spring break experience generally includes hordes of college students invading Florida’s beaches, basking in the sun by day and partying by night. But there are alternatives, and more than 250 Howard University students found one.

They decided to spend their break in New Orleans as part of the university’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program called “Commissioned: Taking Action and Making Change.”

Last month, students and chaperones departed from Washington, D.C., on a 20-hour bus trip to the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged city. Many thought that they would change New Orleans; few expected that New Orleans would change them as well.

An overwhelming number of students chose to participate in the program after it was announced that the students would be traveling to the Crescent City.

“Initially, we had only planned to bring 50 students,” says the Rev. Dr. Bernard Richardson, dean of Howard’s Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel and the lead organizer of the trip. He says the students’ enthusiasm forced his staff to alter their plans.

With the help of donations from Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, deans within the university and members of Rankin Chapel congregation, ASB was able to accommodate everyone who was interested in going on the all-expenses-paid mission.

According to Richardson, the large number of students made a huge impact, “By just being with the community and seeing how [our presence] uplifted the residents in New Orleans and provided a sense of hope. They were encouraged to see so many young college students sacrificing [their time] on their behalf,” Richardson says.

Chad Williams-Bey, a junior political science major from Connecticut, decided to make the trip only two days before the group’s departure.

“If I had gone home, I would have just spent my spring break hanging out with friends,” he says. “The motto for Howard University is ‘leadership for America and the global community.’ I wanted to make a difference.”

While in New Orleans, students worked with Habitat for Humanity and Common Ground Collective, a community-initiated volunteer organization, on restoration projects and community outreach programs.

Throughout the week, most of the students were charged with “gutting,” or removing debris, from homes designated as safe to enter by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Equipped with safety goggles, work boots, protective suits, hard hats and face masks, the students stripped the houses of everything, including walls, insulation, refrigerators and stoves.

Williams-Bey, along with a group of Howard law students, also worked with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.

“In addition to gutting out homes,” says Williams-Bey, “I interviewed residents and documented their feelings toward the FEMA response.”

And although the students spent most of their time in St. Bernard Parish, St. Charles Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward, it was their experience in the Ninth Ward that seemed to affect them the most.

“The Ninth Ward looked like a dead situation,” says Teneasha Pierson a junior marketing major from Oakland, Calif. “Houses were separated from their foundations, structures were now piles of wood and lives had been washed away by the flood water. The neighborhood seemed dead.”

The Ninth Ward is located in the easternmost downriver portion of the city. It is the largest of New Orleans’ 17 wards and was home to more than 20,000 of the city’s Black residents, a third of whom lived in extreme poverty before the hurricane.

Spending their last two days in the Ninth Ward was not on the students’ original itinerary, but they felt compelled to return.

“It was very important for Howard University students to have a presence in the Ninth Ward,” says Jayson Rodriguez, a junior political science major from Chicago. “The place is inhabited by people that look like us and they want people that look like them, [African-Americans], to help them.”

Tiiseetso Dladla, a junior advertising major from Johannesburg, South Africa, says this experience has helped her discern her calling. Upon graduation, she plans to study film in graduate school.

“I’m a visual person. I am connected to imagery,” she says. “And after seeing what I saw [in New Orleans], I want to capture and relay those stories to other people in a manner that the media has not captured.

— Nealy is a junior at Howard University and participated in ASB.

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