|Dillard student finds 'there's no place like home'|
Oct. 3, 2006
|A UMNS photo by Stephanie Kovac
Students return to Dillard University, 13 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the campus.
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
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.
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.
|A UMNS photo by Stephanie Kovac
Kearney Hall at United Methodist-related Dillard University in New Orleans is again open to students.
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
Mona Duffel-Jones, interim director of university communications,
believes bringing Dillard back is key to reviving the community.
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
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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