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Dillard student finds 'there's no place like home'

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A UMNS photo by Stephanie Kovac

Students return to Dillard University, 13 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the campus.
Oct. 3, 2006

By Stephanie Kovac*

NEW ORLEANS (UMNS) -- For students like 20-year-old Raphael Richard Jr., life turned upside down after Hurricane Katrina.

A Dillard University student, Richard was forced to evacuate when the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005. After heading home to Baton Rouge, La., he attempted to enroll at Louisiana State University, but found the campus too crowded. Following a short stint at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he became depressed and returned home to Dillard.

"I guess I'm like Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz'," he says. "There's just no place like home."

Thirteen months after Hurricane Katrina, the campus of Dillard University is again buzzing with life. More than half of the 2,100 students enrolled at the United Methodist-related university before Katrina have returned.

"I believe our students see themselves differently; they see themselves as pioneers," says Freddye Hill, the university's vice president of campus life.

A changed campus

Those who have chosen to return "home" have found a city very different from the one evacuated more than a year ago.

The Dillard campus is in Gentilly, a lower-elevation community bordered by canals to the north, east and west. All of the levees broke in the aftermath of the killer storm. Within hours, the 55-acre campus -- with its majestic oaks and gleaming white buildings -- was inundated with up to eight feet of water.

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A UMNS photo by Stephanie Kovac

Kearney Hall at United Methodist-related Dillard University in New Orleans is again open to students.
While the historically black college's campus remained closed, the Hilton Riverside Hotel downtown welcomed the students and provided them with dorm and classroom space. Last summer, university officials decided to delay the start of the fall semester by a month in order to "minimize the need to evacuate the campus" during the peak of the hurricane season.

Richard says it's not just Dillard's reputation for academic excellence that's brought so many students back, but the strong cultural connection they feel to the city.

"I used to take the bus and go downtown to the French Market and the French Quarter some Saturdays, and bring my camera and just take pictures. And that was my relax time, all by myself."

When he returned to New Orleans, he was stunned that so much devastation remained. Frustrated by the lack of recovery efforts, he says he felt a call to be part of something bigger than himself. A junior with a declared major in secondary education, he switched his focus to urban studies and public policy. He says the city will need fresh minds to help reform policies and figure out what needs to be done.

"The city will definitely benefit not only from Dillard students but any student who decides to stay and really invest their time in this city and helping it rebuild," he says.

Getting student input

Educators agree that the task of rebuilding is formidable, but they say there is also an opportunity to take community service to new level.

"We are also now prepared to get our students around the tables where reports are being written, where decisions are being made, so that they can give their input and collaborate with our city, our city leaders," Hill says.

Mona Duffel-Jones, interim director of university communications, believes bringing Dillard back is key to reviving the community.

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Marvalene Hughes
You have to start somewhere, she says. Service businesses will come back once students return. A strip mall within walking distance of the university is already showing signs of activity. While more businesses are closed than open, a "Grand Opening" banner hangs outside the Family Dollar, welcoming shoppers and students alike.

Journey of faith

University President Marvalene Hughes, who took office only a few weeks before Katrina struck, knows Dillard is in the hands of future students. She's encouraging those brave enough to return to walk by faith and not by sight.

For those like Richard, that shouldn't be difficult. He admits he had to have faith in the city to even consider coming back, and faith in the university as well.

"It may not work out before I graduate or before the class after me graduates. But I think it will all work out ... eventually," he says. "Dillard is going to be bigger and better, and I think once we achieve that, it's going to be an unstoppable institution, regardless of circumstance."

*Kovac is a freelance writer and producer for Wishcraft Productions Inc.

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

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