New Orleans Is Buoyed by a Tide of College Students

Article excerpt

The Crescent City is taking a giant step toward renewal this month as thousands of college students flock back into town, determined to pick up where hurricane Katrina forced them to leave off at the start of last semester.

In neighborhoods that were spared the brunt of the devastation, happy squeals of reuniting friends are heard amid the soundscape of hammers and power saws. And for professors, staff, and local businesses that have been preparing for their arrival, it's not a moment too soon.

Universities are the largest private source of employment in the city right now, and the students are adding at least 20 percent to the population. So their opening days are being celebrated far beyond campus boundaries.

"This place was dead for all those months. It's so good to see all this life again," says Prof. Denis Jans as he greets a student on the first day of classes at Loyola University. Like many of the faculty, he lost his home to flooding and has been moving every few weeks. "I'm still a refugee," he says.

All along the oak-lined path outside the student center, it's a virtual hug-fest as people catch up after having scattered to hundreds of other colleges as Katrina evacuees.

For New Orleans natives like Cee Cee Toso, it's especially comforting to get back to the routines of college life. Though her home suffered only wind damage, she says it's depressing to see so many places from her childhood destroyed. "Being at school again is like being in a bubble - in a good way.... It's a good energy. I hear a lot of people say that with the students coming back, they really feel New Orleans is back."

Questions about safety and services

Despite having to "re-recruit" the first-year class, Loyola persuaded 87 percent of its undergrads to return, says Tom Smith, interim vice president for student affairs. He fielded a barrage of questions from concerned parents about safety and services in the campus's Uptown neighborhood. Most were satisfied with what they heard.

As for the "bubble," it won't last long. The colleges are providing tours of the flood- ravaged parts of the city. "It's important for [students] to understand, if there are some inconveniences at local stores or restaurants, that there's been a lot of suffering," says Bob Thomas, a professor conducting tours for Loyola students and parents.

Joe McMenemon, a sophomore at Tulane University, right next door to Loyola, says the fact that restaurants are still closing early doesn't dampen students' excitement about being back and volunteering in the recovery. "I went to the Ninth Ward yesterday, and it's unbelievable," he says of one of the neighborhoods where houses were flattened and a barge still sits atop a yellow school bus. "As students at Tulane, we really have a unique opportunity," he says.

That's the point that Tulane President Scott Cowen drove home last semester as he spoke at a number of colleges that took in New Orleans students. Not only did he assure students early on that Tulane would be ready to welcome them back, but he also made the case that the entire city needs their talent and energy. About 40 service-learning courses are available at Tulane this semester. Starting with this year's freshmen, participation in such courses will be a graduation requirement.

"People really respected that [Dr. Cowen] stayed connected with the students," says student Sarah Norton, who heard him speak last semester when she was attending the University of Texas. But even she was amazed to hear that 92 percent of her fellow undergraduates are returning as well.

Damage to Tulane's Uptown and Downtown campuses totaled about $200 million. But restoration crews managed to have the main Uptown campus looking close to normal for the first-year students' "Orientation Deja Vu."

A reorganization plan to keep the school on solid financial footing included laying off many part-time employees and more than 200 faculty. …