College Life after Katrina ; African-American Students from New Orleans Adapt to the Culture Up North

Article excerpt

'My mom told me, 'Think of it like study abroad.' " For all Whitney Wallace knew of New Hampshire, it might as well have been a foreign country. But when she got word that she could attend college here for free this semester after evacuating from Dillard University in New Orleans, she didn't worry about the details. The sophomore had been sitting at home in Jackson, Miss., for a week when a friend spotted Franklin Pierce College's scholarship offer on the Internet. "I just thought, 'Let me hurry up and do it before I change my mind,' " she says, her slipper-clad feet kicking back and forth as she relaxes in her dorm on a Friday afternoon.

Ms. Wallace could have stayed closer to home, at any number of colleges in the region that opened their doors for free to evacuees. But she and friend Tyger Russell decided to head north for an adventure instead. Thanks to the Dillard network, five others from the historically black college found the right academic fit at Franklin Pierce and arrived here during the first week of September.

Hundreds of schools around the United States are now host to the diaspora of Gulf Coast students and faculty. Franklin Pierce counts 14 "Katrina scholars" - the rest coming from Tulane and Loyola - among its 1,600 students. As homework intensifies and the trees take on the rich hues of fall, the initial flurry of donations and local media attention is fading. But those little moments of discovery keep happening - the comparisons of food and weather and culture that are part of any encounter "abroad."

Dean of admissions Lucy Shonk reassured a number of Dillard parents who were wary about their children arriving there from a campus that's almost entirely African-American. With about 7 percent of the student body from minority groups, Franklin Pierce is diverse by New Hampshire standards, she says. "It's a place where everybody gets along ... and it's diverse not just in terms of minorities but all types of backgrounds." Being in a rural area, she adds, forces the college to build a strong sense of community and trust.

Phebe Robinson, an African-American admissions counselor and recent graduate, welcomed students at the airport and introduced them around campus. On a trip to Wal-Mart, one student got emotional when she picked out the same notebook she had left behind in the now- flooded buildings. "She was saying, 'Is this really real? I can't believe you're paying for all this,' " Robinson says. "I can't describe how good it was to feel like we were helping."

Soon they had packed their schedules with classes, clubs, and sports - one young woman from Dillard joined the crew team as a novice and is hosting a radio show on Tuesday afternoons. "They've just thrown themselves into this community.... I see them becoming leaders," Ms. Robinson says.

Wallace says she's excited to be on a campus that to her eyes is very diverse. "I've met Italians, Japanese.... These are people I never get to meet on my campus." she says. And some simply defy categories: "There's this guy," she says, giggling, "he wears tie- dyed clothes and hangs a stereo around his neck and just starts dancing."

On their second day in New Hampshire, Wallace and Ms. Russell signed up for the campus's traditional Mountain Day. Along with 250 students and faculty, they had their first hiking experience, climbing to the 3,100-foot summit of nearby Mt. Monadnock. Wallace cracked jokes all the way up to mask her terror. "At the top, I just lay there. I didn't want to move.... I thought I was on 'Fear Factor,' " she says. Russell came away with a postcard-perfect response: "If I can do this, I can do anything."

Two weeks before, they had been throwing clothes and flip-flops into bags, thinking they'd be away from Dillard for only a few days, like last year when they evacuated for hurricane Ivan. Wallace brought books and her laptop, and the Internet has been a lifeline. …