New Orleans students return to a ravaged city

For New Orleans-area college students, New Year’s Eve marked just the first in a series of new beginnings.

Just days after the start of 2006, thousands of students at colleges across the Gulf Coast returned to begin their first post-Katrina semester in an academic community that has changed greatly from the one they left nearly five months ago.

While no colleges in the area have had to close their doors, none managed to escape Katrina’s impact. Tulane University’s uptown and downtown campuses suffered roughly $200 million in damages, forcing the school to lay off more than 200 professors and scale back some academic programs.

Despite the changes at Tulane – which resulted in the suspension of eight sport teams in December due to financial concerns – university officials report pre-registration estimates showing that between 88 and 92 percent of the undergraduate population will return this spring.

The reopening of Tulane alone – which boasts more students than any other area college – is expected to expand the local population by 20 percent. Scott Cowen, the school’s president, said in a statement that he hoped the beginning of the new semester could help restore optimism to the storm-ravaged city.

“This is the first thing New Orleans has had to cheer about in many months, because it is a beginning for all of us here at the university and also for our great city,” Cowen said.

However, while several New Orleans-area school officials have expressed delight at the numbers of returning students, many schools – particularly the city’s smaller colleges – are still struggling to recover. Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana were both forced to cut almost a third of their staff.

Dillard, a historically black college with a student population of just more than 2,000, suffered $400 million in damages. The school’s campus was still unusable when the semester started, forcing students to move into a high-rise Hilton Hotel in downtown New Orleans.

Other schools are worried that the revenue from returning students will not compensate for the damages. Despite the expected return of 90% of the school’s undergraduates, the president of Loyola University-New Orleans, Kevin W. Wildes, recently told faculty and staff that tuition dollars alone may not be enough to bring the school back to its former condition.

At convocation before classes started on January 9, Wildes expressed “deep concern” about Loyola’s dependency on tuition, which he said is responsible for 72 percent of net revenue. He estimated the university’s current losses for the year are at $20 million and urged older faculty members to consider retirement as a cost-saving measure.

While the students themselves may not feel the brunt of Katrina’s financial woes, many are finding it challenging to readjust to a city that has changed so dramatically. Tulane senior Blake Roter said that while he rationally understood things would be different in New Orleans, he had not fully prepared himself for the harsh reality.

“I was really hoping that things would somehow be the same as before, and thus I was disappointed when it was different,” Roter said.

Others echoed that same sentiment, lamenting that the once vibrant city seems to have lost much of its character.

“It’s so peculiar to go around and not see the life that used to be in the city,” said Ashley Genz-Foster, a junior at Loyola University. “There’s nobody playing the trumpet downtown anymore. It’s like the breath has been taken out of the city and we’re all just trying to get by and breath on our own.”

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