One year later: Katrina students reflect on U of C

By Sara Jerome

Where are you from? What’s your major? What’d you pencil in after a deadly hurricane struck, derailing your plans for the future?

When students at Tulane University introduce themselves, they cover a lot of ground.

“It’s a common question here: ‘Where’d you go Hurricane Semester?’” said Rebecca Miller, a Tulane sophomore who spent her freshman year at the U of C. “A nice thing about coming back is everyone’s been through the same experience. You’re not an anomaly.”

After the hurricane, colleges across the country temporarily accepted displaced college students whose home institutions were shut down by Hurricane Katrina. At the U of C, 17 Katrina students attended the College on a student-at-large basis—taking classes that would count toward credit when they returned to their original schools, as most did. As New Orleans celebrates its second Mardi Gras since the hurricane, students are still adjusting to the curveball Katrina threw at their education plans.

Miller said her return to Tulane has been difficult because she used up her freshman enthusiasm last year at the U of C.

“The adjustment has been a little weird,” Miller said. “When you’re a freshman, you’re really gung-ho about everything. Freshman year’s a really formative year–at least for me it was.”

Miller said students campaigned to bring classmates back to campus, wearing Tulane garb and creating Facebook groups proclaiming messages like “You know you go to a Post-Katrina Tulane if…you realize that even after almost being destroyed, you live in the best city in the whole damn U.S.A!”

The long saga of catastrophe, relocation, and return began during orientation week for Tulane students last year. As if normal concerns about loans, moving, and meeting new roommates weren’t enough for college-bound freshmen to think about, students at New Orleans colleges had to wonder if their schools still existed.

Miller returned to her home in Georgia before the storm hit. “It was…stressful,” Miller said. “I didn’t know what was going happen. The Tulane website was down. The emergency website was down, too, and it was hard to get in touch with .”

The U of C was an attractive option to many Katrina students because fall quarter had not yet begun when the hurricane hit. Nevertheless, the Midwestern educational detour wasn’t always easy. During the year, Miller said she did not feel like a “real” U of C student. Then, at the end of the year, she said it was hard to leave her friends in Chicago.

“I had mixed feelings ,” Miller said. “But, I was excited about coming back to New Orleans. is my school.”

Unlike Miller and the rest of New Orleans, which celebrated Mardi Gras this week, second-year Max Smith was here in Chicago, in the midst of a rigorous eighth week. Originally Tulane-bound, Smith came to the University as a student-at-large in 2005 and decided to transfer permanently.

“I was sitting in Sosc the other day, and a friend of mine turned to me and said ‘I’m going to Mardi Gras,’” Smith said. “I was thinking, ‘Damn it! That could’ve been me!”

“Going to school in New Orleans would’ve been a whole lot of fun,” Smith said. “My uncle used to say, ‘If you ever meet a man who has survived four years at Tulane, you should give him a lot of respect.’ He was referring to Mardi Gras.”

Nevertheless, Smith said he doesn’t fixate on the fun he’s missing in New Orleans. “When I’m in the Reg, I’m so bogged down with work that I can’t think anyway,” he said. His decision to transfer to the U of C mostly resulted from Tulane’s inability to provide the scholarship they’d originally offered.

For Smith, Katrina changed more than his partying future. It thrust him onto a new academic path, compelling him to re-imagine his future in terms of law school rather than academia.

Although they both began at Tulane and wound up following different paths, Smith and Miller share a common memory: the moment they realized that they wouldn’t be attending Tulane. When they evacuated the city, the scope of the eventual damage was not widely understood.

Smith was driving back to his home in Chicago when the situation escalated. “We were in Kansas, and the hurricane upgraded to a class five. , we pretty much realized we weren’t going back for a while,” Smith said. “Just when we got to Chicago, the levees broke. That’s when Tulane announced it was closing school, possibly permanently.”

“After the first week, my parents were like, ‘You should start looking for a new school,’” Miller said. She originally believed that she’d “be back in three days” and even left suitcases full of clothing in her Tulane dorm room. “I only my dirty clothes to bring home and wash.”

Miller said she was stuck wearing the same couple of outfits all fall at the U of C.

Despite the stress, Miller said she approached the detour at the U of C as an “opportunity” rather than an ordeal.

“I met a lot of people at the U of C, met a lot of good friends,” she said “I would be happy either place.”