Still Waiting

Many students whose community colleges were shut by Katrina have no good options.
September 8, 2005

Newspapers nationwide are full of uplifting stories about students who fled New Orleans and have been enrolled by colleges all over the country.

Cornell University has registered 165 Tulane University students and found housing for most of them. The University of California at Berkeley is accepting as many as 50 undergraduates from New Orleans colleges. Camden County College has just enrolled a freshman from Tulane and a sophomore from Xavier University. Among other efforts to help these students, the U.S. House of Representives on Wednesday passed a bill to ease some student aid rules for those whose colleges were closed, and another bill was introduced in the House to do even more.

As laudable as these efforts are -- and they clearly are helping thousands of students -- some worry that another group of students may be particularly vulnerable and unable to benefit from the generous offers from colleges all over the country. These are students at community colleges. Some 20,000 of them have been displaced from their colleges and unlike many students at four-year colleges in New Orleans, many of these students do not have families or financial resources elsewhere. They literally cannot get to colleges that are offering aid, many of which are focusing on students from their regions.

Lahattie Robinson, for example, is a freshman at Delgado Community College in New Orleans. She had just started her coursework for the semester, with classes in sociology, English, math and African-American history, when Katrina hit. Robinson fled to Little Rock, where she has relatives. She literally has no money to spend and relies on her relatives. She's pretty sure that her family's home in New Orleans has been destroyed.

"The first thing I'm trying to do is continue my education," she said. "Going to college is really, really important to me."

But it's not so easy. She thought she could find good programs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. But the university, like many public institutions, is offering a full ride only to Arkansas residents who were attending colleges closed by Katrina. Out-of-state residents like Robinson are offered in-state tuition, but they still must pay those costs. Some colleges elsewhere are waiving tuition completely, but she doesn't have family in very many cities and hasn't been able to find anyplace where she could live and go to college free. She received financial aid to enroll at Delgado, but paid it for her tuition there.

"I really feel bad," Robinson said. "It's like the colleges care, but I can't get there. I have a whole lot of potential. I had a great GPA in high school, and I want to be in college."

Alex Johnson, chancellor at Delgado, working out of a temporary office in Baton Rouge, said that Robinson is quite typical of his college's 17,000 students. About 58 percent of them are minority students, many of them the first in their families to go to college. Many work part-time or full-time to pay for college and have few connections outside New Orleans. About 3,000 Delgado students are from neighborhoods that have been completely destroyed and thousands more probably lost their homes and the jobs that supported their families.

"I'm very worried about our students and the support they need," Johnson said.

The solution isn't going to be simple. The main Delgado campus, which enrolls more than 12,000 of its students, is under six to eight feet of water. Several other Delgado campuses experienced less damage and one campus may even have electricity and water, Johnson said, but it is unclear when anyone will be able to return.

"Right now we're trying to redevelop our entire infrastructure, and that's what the students are trying to do with their lives too," he said. Delgado has just succeeded in getting paychecks to the bank accounts of full-time faculty and staff members, something Johnson said is vital. "We want to help them and we want them to come back."

Walter G. Bumphus, president of the Louisiana Technical and Community College System, said that officials from Delgado and other affected community colleges have been working around the clock to find ways to help students and employees. "Our students have been resilient and our staff has been very resilient, even in the most trying personal circumstances."

The system office has used its Web site to help New Orleans campuses communicate with students and faculty members and to find temporary space to work in Baton Rouge. Bumphus also said that the system was working to look for space outside of New Orleans where Delgado, along with Nunez Community College and New Orleans campuses of the Louisiana Technical College, might offer courses. But he said that it was too early to say when such a campus might be opened.

Nunez Community College, located just outside New Orleans, in Chalmette, has also been shut down by the post-Katrina floods. It has set up a temporary Web site to provide information to students and professors, who have been trading questions and suggestions, while assuring one another that they are physically OK. A student who is a semester away from finishing a nursing degree asks for help. Employees in various departments post information about their scattered colleagues. Some try to be inspirational, with one employee writing, "This is the ultimate challenge. If anyone can do it, it is the team at Nunez." This being Louisiana, there is a posting about cooking red beans and rice.

Tommy Warner, chancellor of Nunez, stayed on campus for six days after Katrina struck, working from a second floor office while water came into the first floor of the building. He said he didn't want to leave until it was absolutely necessary and he wanted to make sure that there were no security breaches at the college.

Now working from Baton Rouge, he said there is one primary question: "When can we get back and get our students back?"


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