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Commentary: Life at Dillard University a daily struggle after Katrina

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Erin A. Grimes

Feb. 27, 2006

A UMNS Commentary
By Erin A. Grimes*

Hurricanes were a familiar part of each fall semester at Dillard University, the historically black, United Methodist-related university I attend in New Orleans. When I learned we were evacuating to Houston last Aug. 27, I thought it would be for a short vacation. Instead, Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast Aug. 29 and its tragic aftermath, changed the course of my senior year forever.

After the levees broke and we got official word that I would not be able to go back to Dillard for the fall semester, I enrolled at Spelman College in Atlanta. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I could not imagine going anywhere other than Dillard; but there I was, 500 miles from my beloved school and city.

My stomach was in knots as my mother and I drove to New Orleans last Nov. 11, my first visit since Katrina. I was so afraid my New Orleans would be so marred that I would not recognize it, but I needed to see the city before I decided if I wanted to return to Dillard in January.

The eastern park of the city was like a ghost town, or a war zone. Everything had been flooded, and there was debris everywhere. I could not imagine what the campus was going to look like.

But the university’s administration had decided that even though the campus suffered a great deal of damage, it would reopen at a different site in New Orleans. That was one of the best decisions they made.

Many ask why I would return to a school holding classes in a hotel, in a city barely back on its feet. One of my good friends here said: "I owe it to God, I owe it to myself, and I owe it to Dillard to help rebuild the city." I agree that it is my duty as a student of Dillard and a member of the United Methodist Church to dedicate myself to the rebuilding of my campus and my adopted city.

There is still so much work to be done to rebuild New Orleans. Everyone’s support is needed to sustain the rich history I love at Dillard University and in New Orleans.

When the spring semester began on Jan. 9, I was so glad to be back at school after almost five months away. I loved seeing people and professors I had missed so much. On the first day of registration, more students returned than expected — a sign that Dillard was on its way to being whole again.

The first day of classes in the New Orleans Hilton was interesting, but not the lap of luxury some might have expected. The rooms are not real classrooms. Oversized cubicles serve as our learning areas. At times it is hard for teachers and students because there are so many people in one area, instead of in separate rooms. It’s loud, and at times, extremely challenging.

However, everyone is exercising extreme patience because we know that this will not last forever. Soon Dillard will be back on its campus, and things will really begin to get back to normal.

I have found that going from having my own apartment last semester to sharing a room with another girl has been a challenge. Nevertheless, it is worth the sacrifice to be back at Dillard and helping to rebuild the city.

My birthday was Feb. 9 and it was nothing like last year's celebration, when I went with my friends to Kabby's on The River, which is the Hilton's top restaurant in the hotel. This year, the day I turned 22 was uneventful and seemed burdensome beside the struggles in New Orleans.

I am glad to be back at Dillard, but there are so many adjustments. Being with my friends and seeing familiar faces keeps me sane, as does having people around who have been through the same experience. Everyone is in the same boat of grief mixed with strength and the will to help New Orleans.

But students affected by Katrina, especially seniors, are indecisive about what to do after graduation, or do not know what they want to do with their lives. Before Katrina many of us were heading to graduate, medical, or law schools. Now, fewer than 30 have applied.

I am among those who have not applied for graduate school. At this point, I do not know where to go, or what I want to do. It is not that easy to pick up the pieces. Many of the students at Dillard have not dealt with what has happened to us. Yet, here we are, survivors of the storm.

It is such a difficult time for everyone: students, professors, and patrons of the city. I work in the mall next door to the hotel and have to ask customers for their ZIP code. Many ask sarcastically, "Which one? The one for my flooded house or where I live now?"

They laugh, but I can see the hurt and trauma behind what they say.

Still, Mardi Gras season is bringing a little life to an otherwise deserted city. This carnival season is going to be one of revitalization and remembering of a once vital city. Dillard University and New Orleans will return bigger, better, and brighter than ever.

*Grimes, a senior at Dillard University and member of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., took time away from her classes and her job to describe the struggles she and other students face each day.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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