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Displaced New Orleans Students See Good and Bad
By Justin Pope
Accustomed to low and flat New Orleans, Tameka Noel finds herself huffing and puffing as she walks the hilly campus of Amherst College near the Berkshire Mountains. And though it's just October, it already feels like winter to her.
She misses friends, and Cajun food, and Bourbon Street, which puts small-town Amherst's nightlife to shame.
She and the six other students from Xavier University who wound up here this semester won't lie and tell you Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to them, just because they get to spend time at an elite liberal arts college. They will, however, say they are grateful for the hospitality, and that — when all is said and done — their time at Amherst might have broadened their education.
"Some days are difficult and others aren't," said Noel, a senior from New Boston, Texas, who is part of Xavier's well-regarded premed program. "But I think being outside your comfort zone is something everybody should experience."
An estimated 75,000 college students were displaced from New Orleans by the storm. Many are still in the South, or at least at schools close to family. But others are temporarily enrolled at colleges far from home, both geographically and culturally. About a dozen from Xavier, a historically black, Roman Catholic school, were taken in by Amherst and nearby Williams — schools some would call archetypal New England liberal arts colleges.
Around the country, host schools have worked hard to make the students feel welcome. Loyola of Chicago, which accommodated about 300, hosted a Midwest-themed welcome barbecue and a party to watch a New Orleans Saints football game. Washington & Lee University had Cajun night in the dining hall. Santa Clara University in California gave students skateboards and offered a one-time class called "Skateboard Etiquette 101" — figuring it would help students both get around and feel more Californian.
Amherst took its visitors shopping for the winter clothes they suddenly needed, and is even paying for them to fly home for Thanksgiving. In the classroom, it organized tutorials to help them catch up after missing the first two weeks of class. College officials say the students are doing fine academically.
For the Xavier students, it's a way to get the courses they need to stay on track to medical school. But it's also a chance to try some new things. At Xavier, they said, most classes are in a lecture-and-drill format. Their Amherst seminars have been a nice change of pace in both structure and content.
"We discussed homosexuality, which is definitely a big taboo at Xavier, being Catholic and all that," said Noel, who added an elective on "cross-cultural constructions of gender" to her science coursework. The different classroom experience "is something I've enjoyed," she said.
In interviews with students scattered across the country, several said they had found the chance to spend a few months at another college unexpectedly valuable.
"I wouldn't take it back. I honestly wouldn't," said Dawnyel Verrett, a junior from Loyola of New Orleans who is at Santa Clara and says she has been warmly welcomed — and enjoyed discovering Mexican food. One of 19 displaced undergraduates at Washington & Lee, in tiny Lexington, Va., Tulane sophomore Jennifer Comarda says she has enjoyed some aspects of small-town life, like getting to know the man who works at a local ice cream shop.
And being at Loyola of Chicago has allowed Zac Markey, who had expected to start at Loyola of New Orleans this fall, the chance to sample some bands on the local music scene.
But make no mistake: Small and unexpected pleasures aside, being displaced is tough, for all sorts of reasons.
"I think all of us here are getting a little bit of cabin fever," said Comarda, who had never spent more than a few days outside her home state of Louisiana. "We're so used to going to the movies and having so many opportunities in a big city, going to the mall. There's no mall here. There's a Wal-Mart."
Markey says he's never quite felt comfortable at Loyola of Chicago. "I'm not getting used to anything here," he said. "I kind of just see it as getting a few credits out of the way."
People have been friendly, but he hasn't made close friends: "There's definitely a division between the Chicago students and the (New Orleans) students. They're from two different cultures."
Some, like Josh Solowiejczyk, a Tulane student relocated to the University of Pennsylvania, have done New Orleans-related charity work to keep up their connection to the city. He has raised over $15,000 for a children's charity by selling bracelets. Others are showing up at recruiting events for their New Orleans colleges.
But most students said they hadn't become involved with campus extracurricular activities; catching up on coursework was a higher priority.
In some respects, the upperclassmen, who are far away from friends and feel like they are missing the best years of college, seem the most frustrated. Freshmen were already prepared for a new scene this fall, so the change is not necessarily as jarring.
"The hardest part is to know how to find the things we need to live day-to-day," said Terilyn Lake, a Xavier senior from Jackson, Miss., who talked about her experience while at an Amherst dining hall. "I don't feel much of a culture shock. It's just a lot of unknowns."
"I feel like a freshman again," she said.