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The Northerner

Universities re-open amidst devastation

Kavita Kumar

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When Alicia Houston returns to college to finish her senior year, the St. Louis resident will move into a hotel where she also will likely take most of her classes.

The Hilton Riverside Hotel in New Orleans will become Dillard University’s temporary residence. That’s where many of Houston’s friends and professors will be, too. Some, though, have chosen not to return after Hurricane Katrina flooded classrooms, tore off roofs and uprooted trees on Dillard’s picturesque campus.

Houston spent the fall semester at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Like most of the 300-plus hurricane-displaced college students who took refuge at schools in and around St. Louis, she’s gearing up to return to New Orleans despite damaged campuses and cuts in programs and faculty.

Why is Houston so excited and eager to return to school in a hotel?

“You know you’re going to go back to a family,” she said.

Many displaced students are leaving with feelings of gratitude toward their host institutions in St. Louis, especially because schools such as UMSL and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville waived tuition for them. Other students, however, are departing with sore feelings toward schools such as St. Louis University and Washington University, which charged them tuition.

The New Orleans-based universities did their part to persuade students to come back. Marvalene Hughes, president of Dillard, and the Rev. Kevin Wildes, Loyola University’s president, were among those who visited St. Louis in the past few months to update students about their campuses and to encourage them to return.

At Washington University, the school accommodated about 90 displaced students, nearly all of whom came from Tulane University. Robert Wiltenburg, the dean of the college, said, “Our expectation has always been that they would go back to Tulane.”

WU is admitting those students only if they can show a strong reason to stay, Wiltenburg said. One student, for example, got a note from a doctor saying mold allergies would make it difficult for that student to be in New Orleans. Eight students have applied to transfer, so far.

In general, Wiltenburg said, it seemed that students were eager to return. Their parents had more pointed questions for a Tulane representative who visited St. Louis a couple of months ago.

“The parents, as you can imagine, were a little bit more like, `Wait a minute. What’s the status of trash collection and sewers?'” he said.

SLU took in about 170 students, most of them from Loyola, a sister Jesuit school. John Baworowsky, a SLU vice president, said those who have expressed an interest to stay are primarily freshmen. About eight students are trying to remain at SLU, he said.

Overall, Baworowsky said, “We felt the ethical thing to do was for them to return to their home institutions.”

Katy Rossi, a Loyola junior, said she had seen a note on Loyola’s Web site stating that all Jesuit universities were taking Loyola students and waiving tuition. So when Katrina sent her home to St. Louis, she registered at SLU thinking she would not be charged.

About a month later, she received a bill from SLU. At first, she thought it was a mistake, perhaps a glitch in the system. It wasn’t.

She withdrew from the university in late October, partly in protest over the tuition policy. She received another bill in early December, but she doesn’t plan to pay it.

“It was a time of crisis and we weren’t thinking that these people were going to take advantage of the situation,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like they need the money.”

Baworowsky said part of the confusion was a statement signed by various higher education organizations, including the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. Many people interpreted it to mean that all Jesuit schools were waiving tuition, he said. But it was more a guideline than a policy, he said.

SLU decided early on to charge tuition and match all scholarship aid that students had received at their home universities, wrongly thinking that Loyola would send a refund check for the fall semester. SLU ended up spending more than $1 million to cover those scholarships, Baworowsky said. The university went out of its way to help students, adding sections of some classes to accommodate the influx, he said.

“We were very clear and consistent from day one,” he said. “We can clearly say we misled no one.”

Having to pay both tuitions in the same semester provided a hardship for students like Tony LaRocca, a Loyola junior from Long Island who also assumed SLU was waiving tuition. He took out another loan and worked extra hours as a waiter to make rent and tuition payments.

“It was a really bad semester,” he said. “This was another thing I had to deal with that I didn’t really want to deal with. We could have gone pretty much anywhere in the country, and we went to St. Louis and ended up getting screwed.”

Not all students were upset by the situation. Frank Rieger, a Loyola freshman from Columbia, Mo., wasn’t expecting to have to pay tuition at SLU. But he harbors no ill will and is thankful SLU was so welcoming.

“In the end, everybody has to cover their own interests,” he said. “I can understand that they weren’t expecting to take on more than 100 more students. It’s tough, but it’s not unwarranted.”

Some students and parents also complained that Washington University, which matched need-based aid, was charging its own tuition. But many of them didn’t know that the school ended up sending a considerable payment to Tulane.

Chancellor Mark Wrighton said officials realized they had collected a substantial amount of money from displaced students. So the university decided to give about $500,000 to Tulane.

“We had some incremental expenses, but the lion’s share of the revenue that was collected was given to Tulane,” he said. “We just think that’s the right thing to do. … Our hope is that Tulane thrives in the future. We wish them all of the best.”

Not all students will return to New Orleans- Donte Howard included.

The Edwardsville resident enrolled at SIUE after Katrina interrupted his first week as a freshman at Xavier University. The unexpected change came with some perks – including being able to play football for SIUE’s club team. Xavier doesn’t have a team.

The main downside has been living at home with his parents, he said. But he’s staying put at SIUE for another semester and is considering transferring to another school next year.

“After the hurricane, I thought this was a sign that maybe God didn’t want me to be down there,” he said.

For him, part of the allure of Xavier was the city of New Orleans.

“A lot of the people are gone now,” he said. “A lot of the culture and traditions have been washed away. It doesn’t seem like the same city I visited so many times before.”

As for Houston, the Dillard student who will return to school in a hotel, she is looking forward to June, when she plans to march in cap and gown along a tree-lined promenade for the school’s traditional Avenue of the Oaks ceremony. Some of the majestic trees may have fallen or lost limbs, but it’s a graduation scene she has looked forward to since she was a freshman.

“I wouldn’t do it anywhere else,” she said.

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The Independent Student Newspaper of Northern Kentucky University.
Universities re-open amidst devastation