Katrina puts students’ lives on hold

Just over a week ago, Brianne Culley was on a flight to New Orleans, primed to begin her final year at Tulane University.

Now after fleeing from the path of Hurricane Katrina, the fifth-year architecture student is temporarily staying with a friend in New Jersey. She hopes to enroll in Cornell this week.

“It’s a big bummer,” said Culley. “I was kind of looking forward to football games, tailgating, homecoming and all that stuff. Now I’ll never get any of that again.”

Amid the chaos left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of students from New Orleans and the surrounding region are finding their plans in limbo. Some schools in the hurricane-ravaged city have already canceled their fall semesters, while others are delaying their start dates indefinitely as they assess the damage.

As of Wednesday, Tulane University, Loyola University-New Orleans and Xavier University-Louisiana had announced they would be closed until 2006. Dillard University remained undecided, and the University of New Orleans said it hopes to begin Web-based classes by October.

The closures put students in a tricky dilemma by forcing them to decide where and when to continue their education. Most are seeking to pursue their degrees through classes elsewhere this fall. Many underclassmen are looking to transfer permanently.

“It’s a really tough situation,” said Coleen O’Lear, a junior at Loyola. “It’s really difficult to make these kind of decisions of where to go to school so quickly, especially since none of us know still a lot about what’s going on.”

A number of universities across the country have agreed to accept transfers from the affected areas on a non-degree basis as space permits. Schools belonging to the Association of Jesuit Colleges & Universities are allowing Loyola and Xavier-Louisiana students to enroll in classes under the same tuition they would pay at their home institutions.

“If this is one small way that we can help, then certainly we want to do so,” said Julia Battaille, spokesman for Georgetown University, one of the several Jesuit schools offering support. “We realize that many other universities are taking similar steps, and through our collective efforts we hope to allow these students to continue their educations and make progress toward their degrees.”

Adding to students’ frustrations are the often unreliable lines of communication remaining between them and school officials. With university web servers and phone lines out of service, colleges and universities in the region have been unable to directly notify students and faculty of their plans.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling has created a message board where members can post updates on the status of area colleges. Meanwhile, students have turned to online tools such as instant messengers and blogs to check on their friends and exchange information.

Elsewhere around the country, students are doing their part to help those in need. Fundraising drives have sprouted up at campuses nationwide, and some students are traveling to the Gulf Coast to volunteer directly in relief efforts.

“I think everybody right now wants to do something, and everyone is asking what they can do to help,” said Mark Veney, youth services director for the American Red Cross of the National Capitol Region. “No gift is too small or too great as it relates to this very unfortunate incident.”

Yet even as New Orleans-area students plan their futures, memories of the storm linger.

“We always talked about New Orleans being the bottom of a fish bowl… but I never thought this would happen in my college career,” said Danielle Merseles, a senior at Tulane planning to return this spring. “I’m never going to view that city the same again.”

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