To Here and Back Again

FM talks to New Orleans university students who faced a double-displacement after Hurricane Katrina.

In 2005, when Tulane University sophomore Christopher M. Ordoyne received a call from his father telling him that their family needed to evacuate their southern Louisiana home the day after he had moved back to college, years of routinely evacuating his Gulf Coast home gave him no reason to expect anything unusual. Assuming that he would soon return to Tulane, he packed only a few pairs of shorts and t-shirts to bring to Houston with his family. A few miles away, sophomore Bob J. Payne left his Loyola University New Orleans dorm with a suitcase of athletic clothes to last about a week. For other Tulane students—such as Tommy E. Slattery, a freshman and native of New Orleans, and Ahmed A. Salahudeen, a sophomore from Jackson, Miss.—evacuation was coupled with a sense of foreboding, but none could expect devastation on the scale of Katrina.

Slattery and Salahudeen’s fears were realized when Hurricane Katrina, which formed over the Bahamas on August 23, slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29. The subject of around-the-clock television news coverage, it was one of the deadliest and the costliest natural disasters in American history, killing more than 1,800 people and generating about $80 billion in damage. In addition, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education estimated that 80,000 students were displaced by Katrina and, one month later, Hurricane Rita.

Initial hope that the city would rebound quickly gave way to the devastating realization that the city’s levees had been breached, putting 80 percent of New Orleans underwater. The area’s schools would not reopen for the semester, leaving students with an uncertain future.

For Ordoyne, this meant much more than buying more shirts or finding a laundromat. He no longer had a school to attend, and his educational future was far from clear. “You have a plan, you know what’s going on in your life, then all of a sudden it stops cold,” he says.


CHECKING IN

For many students from New Orleans universities, picking up the pieces after Katrina devastated their college town and curtailed their semester meant relocating to a new city and enrolling in a new school; in all, ninety-nine American post-secondary institutions enrolled displaced students following Katrina, according to the Department of Education. For three dozen, that new school was Harvard, which didn’t begin classes until September 19, three weeks after Katrina struck.

Then-University President Lawrence H. Summers announced the University’s plans to accept displaced students as visiting students in a Sept. 2 letter to the Harvard community, and the College ultimately enrolled 36 students—10 freshmen, 11 sophomores, four juniors, and 11 seniors from Tulane, Xavier, and Loyola Universities—according to a College-wide letter from then-Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71.

Two years after Katrina’s devastation, FM talked to four of the displaced students who spent their fall term at Harvard. Their recollections of unexpected displacement, life at Harvard and the rebuilding of their post-Katrina undergraduate lives sound similar to their descriptions of New Orleans today: initially devastating, still ongoing, but hopeful for what the future could bring.


GETTING HERE

Tommy Slattery was just beginning his freshman year when Katrina hit—indeed, he and a high school friend moved into their dorms the day they heard about the approaching hurricane. Slattery, who grew up just a few blocks from Tulane, says that he and his friend could sense the strength of the hurricane as they walked around the city. “We stopped, and realized that the thing was coming for us, just by the feeling in the air,” he says.

Slattery and his family evacuated to Oxford, Miss. and watched the events unfold from the TV in their hotel. After a stop in Tennessee, the Slattery family took refuge in Houston, and Tommy and his father snuck back to New Orleans to salvage what they could from their home—one of the few that hadn’t been flooded. By this time, Slattery had waited too long to transfer to other schools, holding out hope that Tulane would reopen for the semester. The only schools that Slattery knew were still accepting students were Harvard and a Panhandle-area community college, so he submitted an application to Harvard. He learned of his acceptance on a Thursday and by Saturday, he had moved into a suite in Stoughton North.

“That was interesting,” Slattery says.

The Harvard College Admissions Office accepted applications on a rolling basis from September 2 to September 16, often giving same-day offers of admission. Bob Payne, who is from Queens, faxed his application to Harvard the same day he started classes at NYU. He came home, checked his e-mail, and learned that he had been accepted—and that classes started in one week. Ahmed Salahudeen had been admitted to Brown and purchased his ticket to Providence the day before learning of his Harvard acceptance.

For Katrina-affected students, attending Harvard had the practical benefit of the school not having yet begun its term. “Other [Gulf Coast] students who didn’t go to Harvard complained how everything was at their disadvantage from the beginning,” explains Salahudeen, whose heavy pre-med course load, which included organic chemistry, made starting the semester on solid footing especially important.


MOVING IN

Though the displaced students did have the chance to arrive at Harvard before the term began, their transition was naturally disconcerting. Slattery described his first few weeks as “a bit uncomfortable” and himself as “a little spacey.” He spent time holed up in his room, reading e-mails from friends and family that asked him to pray for loved ones they had lost in the storm. Payne remembers sitting alone on the plane that brought him home to New York from Baton Rouge and registering, for the first time, the experience he had gone through.

“That was like, on the plane, my first moment alone. And that’s when it all hit me. Because when I was around people I was trying to keep myself together,” he says.

All but two of the 36 visiting students chose to live on campus. Students lived in Claverly, Apley Court, or the Yard, and the majority of the visiting students were roomed together. The director of the College Planning Office, Inge-Lise Ameer, who is now an assistant dean in the Advising Programs Office, earned the praise of the students interviewed for her help during their transition to Harvard. “The people at Harvard who were dealing with us were extremely nice and extremely kind to us,” says Payne. The College sponsored a weekly dinner in the dining hall for the displaced students, and administrators helped them purchase start-of-the-year possessions for their room, according to Payne. “Harvard took us to Target,” says Payne, “[And they said], you have two hours here, it’s on the Harvard credit card.” Payne remembers how being able to decorate his room made him feel less like a guest at Harvard and more like a student. “[With] even something like a mirror or a desk light, we got to feel like Harvard was our home,” he says.


TURNING CRIMSON

Like any other Harvard undergraduates, the visiting students soon became involved in student life. Salahudeen had an internship at the Harvard Foundation and worked on a research project in the developmental psychology department, and Ordoyne joined Lowell’s House Committee. Payne comped FM and was elected to the Crimson at the end of the semester, and Slattery joined a filmmaking club with Salahudeen.

“I really wanted to get the most out of [Harvard] and meet the most people, just for the experience and to potentially take [skills] back to Tulane,” Salahudeen says. “I don’t know if I would be as involved at Tulane [today] if I hadn’t had all those experiences at Harvard, learned all those things, and had that confidence boost.” Slattery recalls feeling less pressure to conform at Harvard than at Tulane, and Payne says he particularly enjoyed the academic environment present even in Harvard’s residential dorms—from the fact that it was not unusual for students to not have a television in their room to their habit of discussing current events or classes in the dining hall.

But Harvard had its disadvantages, and the students readily acknowledged the pressure-cooker atmosphere they felt while on campus. Salahudeen noticed that he didn’t sleep as much as he used to and found that he hung out with people less often than he had at Tulane. “I missed hanging out with my friends, eating crawfish,” he says.

Though the four students interviewed ultimately enjoyed their time at Harvard, they all planned to return to their Gulf Coast schools for the following spring semester. That was not the case for all the visiting students at Harvard: five Tulane freshmen petitioned the College to allow them to apply as spring transfer students. Following existing policy and honoring an agreement to return visiting students to their home schools, Harvard did not allow these students to apply as mid-year transfer students.

Slattery, who spent his freshman fall at Harvard, admits the delicateness of his situation that fall. “You had to walk the line of enjoying Harvard and remembering that in just a few months, I’m going to go back to Tulane and New Orleans. It was difficult to have a college experience for the first time and know you were leaving,” he remembers, adding that he still misses his friends from Harvard.

Salahudeen, a sophomore at the time, knew he wanted to return to Tulane that spring. “I think out of comfort and necessity I just went back to Tulane. I did not have plans to transfer elsewhere. I really just wanted to settle down and [develop] some rapport with professors and classes, to work in a lab, to get started on my thesis,” he says. “Tulane’s a great school and there was really no point to leaving for the sake of leaving. I wanted to contribute to the rebuilding process.”


MOVING IN (AGAIN)

Complicating the students’ return to their Gulf Coast institutions was the fact that they needed to take their Harvard exams as they began a new semester in New Orleans. Payne remembers the hassle of studying for finals at the same time his Loyola classmates became involved in community service projects around the city. “For the first few weeks, I was kind of stuck in the library here. I remember finishing a paper during the flight into New Orleans. It was a hard first few weeks back,” he says. Slattery, the freshman, found the transition to Tulane difficult. He had to adjust to Tulane’s style of academics, which features more exams and writing assignments, and he became critical of the university’s post-Katrina renewal plan. Students do not “feel as personally involved in Tulane as they’d like,” Slattery says. “Half of our students have had college experiences elsewhere. They’ve been to places where there’s an authentic sense of community. We had old traditions before the renewal plan that have been done away with. The administration is trying to create new ones, but they’re doing it from the top down. I think most people at Tulane would say that something’s missing,” he says


TAKING STOCK

The students who came to Harvard as sophomores in 2005 are now beginning their senior year, and they’ve begun to make plans for the post-college future. Salahudeen is applying to medical school, Ordoyne (who has served as Tulane’s student body president since March) is applying to law school, and Payne is considering graduate school or staying in New Orleans and working for a non-profit or government agency. “There are a lot of opportunities to do good work here,” Payne says.

Not all know how to describe their experiences over the past two years. It’s “become difficult [to] emotionally to invest yourself in a place,” Slattery explains. “Because we were taken away from New Orleans, had to leave Harvard, it becomes difficult to settle down and get used to a place and put yourself into something,” he says. “Living here, you’re always worried, come this August or September maybe something else will come.”

“I can’t really imagine anything having more of an impact,” Payne says of Katrina. He pauses, and emphasizes, “I don’t want to think of anything having more of an impact.” The hurricane has changed his perspective on everything, he says. “It’s given me something to do in life, [and] made me want to stay down here and help people.” Ordoyne explains that Katrina has remained on everyone’s minds, and that Tulane’s course catalog includes many Katrina-related courses. “It’s always there, it’s always a part of my life, it always will be,” he says. But Katrina, he adds, is an opportunity to reinvent Louisiana and New Orleans.

Perhaps the experience of evacuating from your dorm, leaving your friends, resettling in a new location, and creating a new normal at a school that has had to rebuild itself cannot be explained as neatly as would befit a news story or a two-year timeline. Some memories are inscrutable, and some experiences are indelible. “Harvard was a blessing out of a terrible, terrible thing,” Slattery explains. “[Harvard] has been a positive force in my life.” But Katrina?

He pauses. “Still dealing with that one,” he says.

Ordoyne takes a different approach. He remembers sitting in classes that first spring back at Tulane where the professor and the students would talk about their experiences since the hurricane. “The atmosphere was like, ‘Welcome back,’” he says. Katrina made students “realize that we’re a family more than a university. We may not be as strong as we were before…but we’re back.”